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49ers opponent preview: The NFC West likely led by the Seattle Seahawks

In part one of our 2015 opponent preview, we get you caught up on the 49ers competition in the NFC West as we prepare to enter the regular season.

As we enter the midpoint of the preseason, it’s time to take the temperature of the San Francisco 49ers’ 2015 opponents to see where they stand as we prepare to enter the regular season. Over the rest of the week, I’ll providing a big-picture snapshot of each of the 13 teams on San Francisco’s schedule, looking at their underlying performance from 2014, the major happenings from this offseason, and the biggest questions they’ll be facing in the coming season.

Today, we get things started with the 49ers’ division rivals in the NFC West, starting with a team many have expected to breakout for three years running…

St. Louis Rams

Entering the 2014 season there was an air of positivity surrounding the Rams. Though St. Louis was coming off of back-to-back seven-win seasons, one of the league’s best front sevens, anticipated development from the league’s youngest roster, and the hope of a steady presence at quarterback had many (including myself) believing the Rams might finally be ready to contend for a playoff spot under head coach Jeff Fisher. Instead, the Rams took a step back, dropping four spots to 18th in DVOA and finishing with a 6–10 record that had them looking up at the rest of the NFC West in the standings for a second straight season. One year later, the cast of characters have changed, but they appear to be following an all-to-familiar storyline.

Fisher and general manager Les Snead have done an admirable job pulling the Rams up to mediocrity following the franchise’s historic run of ineptitude in the five seasons predating the duo’s arrival in St. Louis. However, they’ve been unable to crack .500 in large part due to an offense that has gotten worse in each year of Fisher’s tenure. You could hardly blame St. Louis’s offensive struggles on neglect from the organization’s decision makers. Numerous draft picks have been spent bringing in young talent at the skill positions, while big-ticket free agent acquisitions such as tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long were added to fill in the gaps. Many of those players have failed to pan out, but there’s been a much larger problem. The Rams have spent all of those resources accumulating talent around a quarterback who has suited up for just seven games in the past two seasons, forcing them to give significant playing time to the likes of Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, and Shaun Hill at the game’s most important position.

After a rare swap of starting quarterbacks this offseason, the Rams will no longer be relying on Sam Bradford to stay healthy in 2015, but it’s fair to wonder if they should be similarly concerned with his replacement. As noted by Bill Barnwell over at Grantland, Nick Foles has yet to make it more than eight consecutive games in a season without missing time due to injury. Health is a skill, and unfortunately for Rams fans, it’s not a skill that Foles appears to possess.

Even setting aside the injury concerns for a moment, there are several other factors that should give Rams fans pause as it relates to Foles. When Foles was performing at his peak during that historically efficient run in 2013, he did so behind one the best offensive lines in football, with the league’s best rushing attack to take pressure off the passing game, and with a noted quarterback-friendly coach orchestrating the attack in Chip Kelly. It’s difficult to imagine Foles receiving anything close to those benefits in St. Louis.

The Rams have completely remade their offensive line this offseason. After relying almost exclusively on free agency to fill out their offensive line under Fisher, St. Louis will be transitioning to a group primarily comprised of unproven youngsters selected in the past three drafts. Veterans Jake Long, Scott Wells, Joe Barksdale, and Davin Joseph — who combined to account for nearly two-thirds of the Rams’ OL snaps in 2014 — have all departed from last year’s unit. There’s still plenty to be sorted out over the remainder of the preseason to determine the eventual starting five in Week 1, but the players expected to step in have minimal NFL experience at best. It’s next to impossible to predict how well that many unproven players will perform, but it seems reasonable to expect a fair amount of growing pains in even the best of scenarios. According to Pro Football Focus, only Russell Wilson had more time in the pocket to throw than the 3.11-second average provided to Foles during his magical run in 2013; it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere near that fortunate in 2015.

In a quest to build a team that would dominate in 1977, the Rams have made every effort to flank Foles with a formidable running game. Despite most of the league having caught on to the fact that running backs simply don’t possess the same value they once did, with the No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft St. Louis made Georgia product Todd Gurley the highest-drafted running back since Trent Richardson. It would be one thing if the Rams had a desperate need to upgrade their ground game, but St. Louis actually finished with a league-average rushing attack a year ago despite trotting out one of the league’s worst offensive lines, thanks in large part to recently drafted ballcarriers Tre Mason and Zac Stacy. Gurley is unquestionably talented and a better prospect than either Mason or Stacy, but with injury issues likely to prevent Gurley from making a meaningful impact until sometime around midseason and the aforementioned offensive line issues, it’s difficult to anticipate the Rams improving on their 15th-ranked rushing offense from 2014, putting even more pressure on Foles and the passing game to come through.

Responsible for piecing it all together will be first-time offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Rams fans are surely pleased to finally be rid of Brian Schottenheimer, but as Joe McAtee from Turf Show Times told me on the Better Rivals podcast last week, Cignetti is so unproven we’re not even sure he’s a real person. Cignetti has (allegedly) served as St. Louis’s quarterbacks coach for the past three seasons, but for whatever he offers as a coordinator, it’s unlikely he’s able to recreate the quarterback-friendly environment that Foles experienced under Kelly in Philadelphia.

All of this leaves the Rams in familiar territory. There are a number of things that point to an ascendence to playoff contention. They underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a full game last season, which has historically been a reliable indicator of improvement the following season. St. Louis’s defense — led by a ferocious defensive line that added pass-rushing defensive tackle Nick Fairley in free agency and will get Chris Long back from injury — should be one of the best in football. And with the massive uncertainty surrounding the 49ers and a potential drop-off from the Cardinals (more to come on that), circumstances in the NFC West have never looked friendlier entering a season for the Jeff Fisher Rams.

Yet, has the makeover on offense really left them in a better spot? In a vacuum, you can probably make a case that several of the offseason changes were improvements, particularly Foles over the combination of Davis and Hill. But it’s hard to imagine all, or even most, of the question marks on offense working out positively for the Rams. And if they’re unable to make notable strides offensively, St. Louis will likely send Jeff Fisher packing at the conclusion of another seven-win season.

Arizona Cardinals

Luck played a significant role in Arizona’s fortunes last season, both good and bad. Despite average health across the entire roster in 2014, Arizona was incredibly unlucky to be forced into starting third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley in a playoff game thanks to injuries suffered by starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton. Yet, you can argue that if it weren’t for good luck on the field in other areas, the Cardinals wouldn’t have been in position to participate in a playoff game to begin with.

The 2014 Cardinals were one of the worst 11-win teams you’re likely to see, evidenced by their 22nd-place finish in DVOA. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, Arizona was just the third team since 1989 to win 11 games and finish in the twenties in DVOA. The explanation for that discrepancy begins with the Cardinals’ mediocre point differential.

Arizona rarely exhibited the sort of dominance you would typically expect from an 11-win team. They beat up on the Rams with a 17-point victory in Week 10, but even including that game the Cardinals average margin of victory was only 8.3 points, the lowest among double-digit-win teams last season. Lacking many dominant wins, the Cardinals frequently had to eek out close games. Arizona went 4–1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and as Barnwell pointed out, they had a number of other victories in which late Cardinals’ scores pushed them just over that threshold.

In total, the Cardinals outscored their opposition by a pedestrian 11 points on the season, giving them a Pythagorean expectation of an 8.3-win team. That difference, 2.7 wins, was the largest gap between a team’s actual win total and expected win total in 2014 by nearly a full game. Teams fitting that profile have a strong tendency to decline in the following campaign when the bounces inevitably stop going their way in close games.

Even if you don’t believe in the quantitative case against the Cardinals, it’s hard to make a qualitative case that the Cardinals will be able to match their success from a year ago.

The Cardinals were able to overcome a number of key personnel losses on their way to becoming the league’s seventh-best defense in 2014, but the hits have continued to come this offseason. After playing most or all of last season without Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett, and John Abraham — none of whom will be returning in 2015 — the Cardinals lost linebackers Larry Foote and Sam Acho, defensive lineman Dan Williams and Tommy Kelly, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie this offseason, all of whom were on the field for significant snaps a year ago.

A number of new faces have been brought in to take their place. Cory Redding and Corey Peters were added to help offset the losses along the defensive line, but the Cardinals have already lost Peters after a torn Achilles ended his season earlier this month. Sean Weatherspoon and Lamarr Woodley were added to the linebacking corps, but both players are on the downside of their careers and are coming off significant injuries that kept them off the field for most or all of the 2014 campaign.

To make matters worse, the man who expertly pieced together the Cardinals defense a year ago, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, is also gone after accepting the head coaching job with the Jets. Bowles’s replacement, James Bettcher, was on the staff last year as the team’s outside linebackers coach and is surely familiar with Bowles’s schemes. But it’s fair to question whether he’ll be as successful as his predecessor at mixing-and-matching the various new parts on Arizona’s defense.

There was some hope for an improved offense, but even that is off to a rough start. Improving a shoddy offensive line was again the focus for general manager Steve Keim this offseason. Keim signed former 49ers guard Mike Iupati to a big-time contract in free agency and drafted Florida tackle D.J. Humphries with the Cardinals’ first-round pick, but their impact in 2015 is already in question. Iupati suffered a torn left meniscus last week and could be looking at up to two months on the sideline. News out of training camp on Humphries isn’t exactly flattering, with the rookie tackle repeatedly getting put on blast by head coach Bruce Arians while struggling with motivation and consistency issues. It’s unlikely that he’ll have a starting role to begin the season, which has to be disappointing considering the way things have worked out for 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper.

If the Cardinals are going to be anywhere near the team they were a year ago they’re going to have to get consistent, quality play from their quarterback. However, they’ve chosen to mostly keep the status quo among a group that doesn’t inspire much confidence. Palmer is a persistent injury risk and at this stage of his career (he’ll turn 36 this season), how much value he’ll have even when he’s on the field is questionable at best. Stanton remains Palmer’s primary backup, and his seemingly competent play last year was mostly a mirage. He completed just 55 percent of his passes, and while he only threw five interceptions, he had eight more dropped by the opposition, a number that trailed only Brian Hoyer (9) according to Football Outsiders. That looks even worse when you consider Hoyer threw nearly 200 more passes than Stanton did in 2014. Arizona won’t be forced to turn to Lindley again this season, but project arm Logan Thomas doesn’t figure to be much better.

Putting it all together, it’s difficult to envision the Cardinals repeating their success from a year ago. There’s strong statistical evidence that suggests they were playing well over their heads. Pass rush is a major concern and it’s hard not to think the defense will be worse with the personnel turnover and loss of Bowles. And they continue to have a massive question mark at the game’s most important position. Toss in a schedule that’s expected to be one of the league’s most difficult and a return trip to the postseason doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Seattle Seahawks

Let’s go ahead and watch this one more time just for posterity:

As enjoying as that play is for a 49ers fan who has gone through hell over the past 12 months, it doesn’t exactly figure to make the Seahawks appreciably worse in 2015.

There’s nothing in Seattle’s underlying performance that sounds the regression alarms. The Seahawks finished first in DVOA for the third consecutive season, their Pythagorean expectation (11.9) matched up almost exactly with their actual win total (12), and they had an even split in six games decided by a touchdown or less. Any argument on why the Seahawks won’t continue to be the NFC’s best team must center around qualitative changes, but you’re bound to come up empty there as well.

Defensively, the Seahawks have retained every significant component of the league’s best defense, assuming Kam Chancellor’s holdout doesn’t extend into the regular season. Cornerback Byron Maxwell is the only starter who won’t return in 2015 after adding several zeroes to his paycheck this offseason courtesy of a massive contract from the Eagles. He will be replaced by former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams. Though Williams has been a below-average cornerback for the duration of his career, the presence of Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, plus the track record of head coach Pete Carroll developing and implementing new defensive backs into his defense means we should probably expect this move to work out until it doesn’t.

The biggest offseason move of note was, of course, the trade that sent Seattle’s best offensive lineman, center Max Unger, and a first-round pick to New Orleans for superstar tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick. Despite their dominant rushing attack, the offensive line has never been a strength for the Seahawks, but the loss of Unger (and fellow starter James Carpenter in free agency) makes the unit Seattle’s clearest weakness.

No team has run the ball more frequently in recent seasons, and few have approached the success experienced by Seattle’s ground game. The combination of the wrecking ball that is Marshawn Lynch and the ruthless efficiency of Russell Wilson in the read-option game have given the Seahawks the league’s best rushing offense by DVOA in two of the past three seasons. But Lynch is 29 years old and has carried the ball more than any other running back over the past four seasons. And as we touched on earlier, Lynch will be running behind the worst offensive line the Seahawks have fielded during his time in Seattle. It’s fair to wonder if we start to see Lynch’s effectiveness begin to diminish.

Toss in the acquisition of Graham, the first bonafide No. 1 target Wilson has ever had, and we could be looking at a potential shift in Seattle’s offensive philosophy. The Seahawks aren’t going to turn in to Graham’s former team any time soon, but the days of finishing with the league’s lowest number of passing attempts are probably behind them.

If you’re looking for reasons to expect the Seahawks to take a step back in 2015, your argument probably centers around the following two points: 1) The effectiveness of the running game falls off as Lynch begins to show his age and Wilson isn’t ready to handle the increased responsibility in the offense, and 2) another purge of defensive depth1 finally takes it’s toll on Seattle’s defense, which isn’t able to maintain its status as the league’s best.

It all seems like a bit of a stretch. More likely, Graham adds a dimension to the passing game Wilson has never had and the defense remains as good as ever, making the Seahawks the team to beat in the NFC once again.