We kick off NFC West Beat; a weekly series combining Xs and Os analysis with talking points from the NFC West. In this edition, Matty Brown and Derek Benson take a look at the biggest areas for each team to address in the upcoming NFC West training camps.
The NFC West has transformed from one of the most competitive divisions in all of football to one of the most lopsided. It’s in flux. Both the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers are rebuilding their franchises under new, young, offensive-minded head coaches. These two teams have serious question marks at quarterback. In Arizona, the 37-year-old Carson Palmer’s best years appear to be well behind him and his durability and arm strength is an ever-growing concern. Meanwhile in Bruce Arians’ new book The Quarterback Whisperer, it was hard not to come away with the impression that this was his last year in the game: “I’m ready for at least one more season of NFL football — maybe more”, he wrote. It is the Seattle Seahawks, led by the ageless Pete Carroll and franchise quarterback Russell Wilson, who appear to be the team that will dominate this division in the years to come.
Arizona Cardinals First Practice: July 22nd (Play in Hall of Fame Game)
San Francisco 49ers First Practice: July 28th
Los Angeles Rams First Practice: July 29th
Seattle Seahawks First Practice: July 30th
The San Francisco 49ers: A Surprise Quarterback Battle? (Matty)
The San Francisco 49ers appear comfortable playing 2017 with free agent acquisition Brian Hoyer under center. The eight-year veteran had success under Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland but has shown a worrying trend of tailing off or getting injured toward the second half of seasons: 35 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and 10 wins in the first half against 9 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and 6 wins in the second.
Third-round selection C.J. Beathard, an Iowa product who the 49ers traded up for, gives them a pro-style quarterback who battled through adversity and possesses good footwork and pocket presence. Though considered a developmental prospect at this point, there is no reason that he can not impress in training camp.
Matt Barkley, who wasn’t terrible with the Bears, was another addition in free agency. He seems to be the backup for now, but he does suit Shanahan’s quarterback prototype better than Hoyer.
Ultimately, it still feels like the 49ers are waiting for Kirk Cousins next year, but this camp battle could become open. Given that San Francisco is clearly rebuilding, they have no reason not to give every quarterback on their roster a real chance at starting Week 1.
The San Francisco 49ers: A Change in the Secondary (Derek)
The 49ers hired former Jaguars linebackers coach, Robert Saleh, as the defensive coordinator for head coach Kyle Shanahan in February. After being accustomed to seeing San Francisco playing Cover 2, the defense will shift to a press, single-high safety look (Cover 1 and Cover 3), trying to replicate the Seahawks’ defense, where Saleh spent three years there, winning a Super Bowl before following then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to Jacksonville.
The 49ers’ best cornerback in 2016 was Jimmy Ward but he will make the switch to safety, where he played during his college days at Northern Illinois. He’s a bit undersized at 5’11”, and hasn’t played a full season yet in his first three years in the NFL, but he’s received positive feedback from Shanahan about his new position.
For the better part of last season Eric Reid had been swapping free safety and strong safety duties with the now-Arizona Cardinal Antoine Bethea. The shift in the defense, and switch by Ward, will lead to him playing closer to the line of scrimmage in his true role as a strong safety, helping out in the run game and defending short passes. Jaquiski Tartt, a 2014 draft selection, could also see some time in the box at strong safety, a nickel role, or a hybrid-dime linebacker role under Saleh.
Ahkello Witherspoon, the long 6’3” third-round pick in April has the tools to succeed (13 PBU’s in 2016, 33” arms, 40.5” vertical) in this defense and could make some noise in training camp. Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser would look to fight over the second corner position in the meantime, with Johnson’s height (6’2”) likely giving him the edge. Reaser could then face some competition from Will Redmond or free agent pick up K’Waun Williams at slot corner. Rashad Robinson had a surprisingly good rookie performance in 2016 and is the favorite to start at corner in 2017. His growth and development in his second year should be something to keep an eye on during camp. All in all, this is a secondary that lacks experience, but could see a pay-out in the future.
The Los Angeles Rams: Sean McVay’s Goff Rescue Mission (Matty)
Sean McVay was hired to get the best out of 2016 first overall selection Jared Goff. Last year Goff displayed a lack of speed in his footwork and mental processing at the NFL level, to go along with poor accuracy.
This training camp is massively important for Goff, as he learns a new, simpler offense. In Washington, McVay was masterful at tuning the scheme to Kirk Cousins’s skillset. For Goff, the youthful head coach can hopefully slow the game down for the second-year quarterback with more basic reads and concepts rooted in mismatches.
Goff must also develop a rapport with his receivers, including five new additions to the passing attack – such as tight end/slot weapon Gerald Everett. A large part of McVay’s scheme is based on isolating an offensive player on a favorable matchup. Take, for instance, the way Jordan Reed was isolated on linebackers or given a free release through switch concepts.
The Los Angeles Rams: The Use of Todd Gurley (Derek)
A stellar rookie outing by Todd Gurley in 2015 led the St. Louis Rams (at the time) to a top-seven rushing attack in the league. The same couldn’t be said in 2016 as it was a tale of two seasons – and cities – with the now Los Angeles Rams finishing second to last on the ground.
The blocking up front wasn’t great last year which probably had an effect on Gurley’s decision making as he hit the line of scrimmage. This season should be better in that regard for Gurley with the added leadership and presence of Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and John Sullivan at center. There is also the emergence of third-year pro Jamon Brown who has gained praise by new head coach Sean McVay in late May during OTAs.
Gurley has demonstrated what he can do in space with the ball, whether on outside runs or catching passes. McVay will attempt to replicate the flashes of success some of the running backs experienced last year in Washington, getting Gurley the ball on outside runs and using him more as a pass catcher.
The Cardinals had the most overall turnover in the NFL this offseason per Jason Fitzgerald at overthecap.com. The impact of this will mainly be felt on defense, where Calais Campbell, Kevin Minter, Tony Jefferson, and Marcus Cooper departed in free agency.
They brought in old veterans in 32-year-old safety Antoine Bethea and 35-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby in an attempt to negate the losses of Jefferson and Minter – though this is a big downgrade at both positions. Jefferson was great at playing in multiple disguised coverages and alignments and Minter developed each year, becoming a real force at inside linebacker.
By drafting Budda Baker and Haason Reddick, the Cardinals did add more talent to their secondary and linebacker groups, as well as much needed versatility. Baker can move around the field and is a weapon when blitzing. Reddick has the range required at ILB and the blitzing ability to be a threat on the loops that the Cardinals run. At training camp we will see how quickly these crucial players take to the NFL.
It is the loss of Calais Campbell that will hurt the most though, simply because there is no defender who can fill his role. His presence commanded the attention of multiple offensive linemen, aiding the success of twists and loops. Sure, Campbell is an irreplaceable player, but you can bet that Steve Keim envisioned Robert Nkemdiche fulfilling the role of a penetrating interior defensive lineman who can play all along the defensive front. Currently, Nkemdiche’s red flags in the pre-draft process have been proven correct. Arians has publicly questioned his maturity and work ethic on numerous occasions. Maybe training camp is the moment where the defensive tackle finally gets ‘it’.
A big question heading into training camp as the Cardinals couldn’t re-sign Marcus Cooper in the offseason and are left with youth at the corner position with Justin Bethel, Brandon Williams, and a plethora of rookies.
Last season, Bethel was set up to start before a foot issue forced the Cardinals to roll the dice with then-rookie Brandon Williams. It also forced general manager Steve Keim to make a trade for Marcus Cooper late in the preseason for much needed depth at the corner spot. Cooper showed out in the second game of 2016 and never looked back, starting 13 games and leading the team with four interceptions.
Now fully healthy and with Cooper gone, Bethel should get the nod at the number two spot after making his name as a special teams player. The second-to-last game last year against Seattle showed what Bethel can do after having a fire lit underneath him by Arians two weeks prior. Add more fuel to the fire as Brandon Williams looks to vie for position for the next month and it is Bethel’s job to lose.
Keim could look to add a veteran player in case things go south. We’ve seen strange things happen before.
It still unclear who the cornerback across from Richard Sherman in the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom is. DeShawn Shead’s ACL injury will lead to him missing a significant part of the 2017 season, leaving the second cornerback position wide open.
After a down year as the nickel corner, Jeremy Lane might move back outside – where he is better suited. This would create an opening in the slot, which requires a player who can mirror his opponent and survive on an island. I am not sure Seattle has that guy on their roster, unless they play more big nickel packages and put Bradley McDougald or Delano Hill into the slot.
The other options for the outside spot are Neiko Thorpe, DeAndre Elliott, Demetrius McCray, Pierre Desir, Shaquill Griffin, and Mike Tyson.
Thorpe and Elliott both have the advantage of experiencing game reps last season. They, like McCray – who spent time in Gus Bradley’s defense in Jacksonville – are more familiar with the step-kick/read-step jam technique when in press coverage. This involves the defensive back remaining patient and taking one step sideways to get in front of the receiver in press. This allows them to be in front of their receiver, making them less likely to be fooled by the dancing / feints which a WR likes to employ. Once the dancing at the line of scrimmage is over, the DB then kicks their foot backwards to run with the WR downfield.
Desir was initially a safety on the roster, so he must learn this technique while transitioning to corner. The two draft picks, third rounder Griffin and sixth rounder Tyson, face different challenges. Griffin, despite his 4.38 40, struggled when covering receivers deep, often because of the technique he was taught. Tyson will have to learn the jam method, but he played the look-in technique in the slot that Seattle likes outside.
The Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line (Derek)
Russell Wilson was sacked 41 times in 2016, tied for 31st in the league with Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck. It was obvious that the Seahawks needed to add some talent to the line.
It is unknown if Justin Britt will receive an extension during camp or if the Seattle brass will wait until after the 2017 season finishes. Nonetheless, Britt is the only constant in a makeshift offensive line heading into the season. It will be an open competition for the remaining roster spots to what was a poor offensive line for Seattle.
Former Jaguar Luke Joeckel spent most of his career at left tackle, but saw some snaps at left guard in 2016. Coach Pete Carroll liked what he saw from him at left guard and Joeckel could get some time there. Left guard Jordan Roos had a draftable grade from Seattle, so when they were able to get him as an undrafted free agent, and Carroll was happy with the pick-up. Roos stood out during rookie minicamp, and could make a run at a starting position according to Carroll.
Probably the most impactful addition to the offensive line was second-round pick Ethan Pocic out of LSU. The 6’6” bright and technically sound prospect made 27 starts at center but also saw snaps at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard, adding versatility to his game. It is already known that Pocic can succeed at center, what they want to try out is for him to start at right tackle for a battle with Germain Ifedi (started at RG last year, but is also considered at RT). Whoever wins the RT position, the other combatant will likely start at right guard.