*To get us ready for the NFL season, I will be going division by division talking about what to look for from an overall view, a fantasy view, and a gambling view. I can hear the pads cracking already…enjoy!*
Editor’s note: DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) is a statistical measurement used by footballoutsiders.com that measures efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on the situation and the opponent
Last season finished standings:
Los Angeles Rams 13-3
Seattle Seahawks 10-6
San Francisco 49ers 4-12
Arizona Cardinals 3-13
The division was split on opposite ends of the spectrum last year, as both the Seahawks and the Rams made the playoffs, while the Niners and the Cardinals were the 2 worst teams in the conference by record. Question marks loom all over this division: What is the exact status of Todd Gurley, and can Jared Goff take the next step? (Anyone in Los Angeles think it was PI? No? Carry on) Can Russell build on his career year? Is Jimmy ready? Will Kyler and pretty boy Kliff mesh, and even yet, can their game make the jump from college to the pros? Time will tell, but for now let’s talk what we know.
Los Angeles Rams – 10 Over/Under wins; -148 to win the NFC West; 13.5/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Robert Woods, LAR D/ST
Outlook: It’s a reload year for the Rams, after a season that ended in disappointment and an opportunity to look in the mirror. For such a good team, there may not be a bigger question mark surrounding a backfield tandem than there is for Todd Gurley and Jared Goff. Some of that is because of the un-denying talent that lies within the two, and some of that comes from the underwhelming performances that lurk from the playoff run of 2018. Gurley carried the ball a combined 14 times in the last 2 games of the year, and the Rams went and drafted Darrell Henderson in the 3rd round, which shows that the concerns about his knee is real. Could we see Gurley become a back that has more of a young Alvin Kamara feel to him than an every-down back? With Henderson and Malcolm Brown in the passenger seat, it sure seems like it could lean that way. Then there’s the Goff debate. He’s thrown for 60 touchdowns to only 19 interceptions in the last 2 seasons while going 24-7 (not bad). But the Bears were able to throw the blueprint out to the world on how to contain Goff: bring pressure. It’s something New England did early and often and was the reason for the game sealing INT in the patriots red zone. With the Gurley rumors swarming, it looks as if this could be the year Goff takes over as the focus point in the offense that should again be top 10 in the league, especially facing a schedule that is the 9th easiest in the league based on win totals. I am looking at an MVP ticket for Jared Goff, and am a believer in McVay and his ability to make Goff shine. The Wide Receiver core will look for Cooper Kupp to give them an extra boost, as the offense took a noticeable hit when he went down in both yards (466 YPG with vs. 377 YPG without) ((!!!)) and efficiency. But if I need to pick a receiver from the three-headed monster of Kupp, Brandon Cooks, and Robert Woods, my pick would be Woods, as he is the best blocker of the 3, which keeps him on the field the most, and he can play multiple positions. Known as a fantastic route runner, his ability to gain yards after catch cannot be glossed over. Finally, football is won in the trenches. With some luck (2nd least injury affected offense in all of football), the O-line ranked first in overall rushing success, and 6th in pass protection. Staying healthy is a major factor for offensive lines, and it is hard to replicate such health over a 16-game season. The big name Is Andrew Whitworth, and they did lose guard Rodger Saffold to the Titans, but they will need everyone to stay healthy should they want to repeat their success.
The defense has Aaron Donald. The end. The NFL voted-on number 1 player in the league is the anchor to a defense that should be better than last years mediocre 21st ranked unit. Adding Eric Weddle should give every phase a bump, both physically and mentally. If Aqib Talib can stay healthy and Marcus Peters can worry more about the game than the interview, that could be a top 5 secondary in the league. They do lose Mark Barron, but he hasn’t been healthy in years for their linebacker core. But the Rams brought back Dante Fowler Jr. and added Clay Matthews over from the Packers. This unit should be a top 15 defense in the league, and if they can do that, the offense will push games out of reach. Anything lower is a disappointment, and not making the playoffs would be a bust. Run the playoff run back, please.
San Francisco 49ers – 8.5 Over/Under wins; +465 to win the NFC West; 25/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel (Sleeper)
Outlook: Everyone who hopped on the train early last year only to watch Jimmy G go down early with a knee injury, hop back on. Jimmy wasn’t the only injury this team endured, as they were the 29th ranked team in Adjusted Games Lost in 2018. But this is 2019, and with the 12th easiest schedule according to win/loss totals, the 49ers should be a team on everybody’s radar. The weapons this offense has with Kyle Shanahan calling the shots would make any offensive happy fan giddy. They bring in Tevin Coleman to reunite with Kyle from their Atlanta days, and he joins a backfield that already houses Jerick McKinnon (coming off an ACL tear) and Matt Breida. On the outside, Dante Pettis will be in line for a coming out party, ad Jordan Matthews and Marquise Goodwin bring veteran depth to the group. Rookies Deebo Samuel – Mr. Everything out of South Carolina – and Jalen Hurd should also make a large impact. All this without mentioning the pro-bowl tight end George Kittle, who should continue to improve with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing him the football, instead of Nick Mullens or CJ Beathard. The offensive line, despite giving up 48 sacks last year, ranks 10th overall, and that number should get better with Jimmy back. All things considered, this offense could take off in 2019.
The defense should absolutely improve their 23rd ranking from 2018. Imagine game planning for a pass rush of DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, and rookie Nick Bosa…yikes. Bosa should also help with a rush defense that ranked 27th last year, along with new signee Kwon Alexander, who looks to be the new man in the middle after a torn ACL cut his season short in 2018 (led league in solo tackles in 2016, pro bowl in 2017). Richard Sherman is the man in the backend, and Jason Verrett, over from the Chargers, should compete for the other corner spot on a defensive backfield that was good for 12th last year, and should only improve with a better pass rush and more depth. The NFC is so tough, I think this is a toss playoff team. Pick your poison.
Seattle Seahawks – 8.5 Over/Under wins; +340 to win the NFC West; 37/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: No thank you
Outlook: I personally have never been a Pete Carroll guy for a variety of reasons – unless it’s for a gum commercial. This year is no different. Russell Wilson is the heart and soul of this offense, and he is coming off a career year in 2018. After an 8.2 touchdown percent rate, beating his previous career high of 7%. Naturally, the water should come back down to level, and he know does it without one of 2018’s best route runners in Doug Baldwin. They did add D.K. Metcalf, but I believe he is a tad raw, and a little overrated coming into the league out of Ole Miss. Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny combine for the 1-2 punch in the backfield, and they are guided by an offensive line that ranked 5th in power rank run blocking. However, despite the brilliance of Russell, which we already can assume will take a dip, the offensive line was ranked 30th in pass protection, giving up a whopping 51 sacks. If this seems like a short segment compared to the other 2 teams, it is. I am down on the Seahawks this year, and don’t expect much fire power from the group.
The defense should ALSO take a step back. Up front, they lose Frank Clark, who accounted for over 30% of the team sacks. Jarran Reed was also recently suspended for the first 6 games of the year, and he accounted for 24% of the team sacks. So at least for the first 6 games of the year, 54% of the sacks from last will be missing. You can never underestimate what Bobby Wagner does for a defense. The All-World middle linebacker is great against the run and the pass, is the leader of this defense, and the head of a solid linebacking core rounded out by KJ Wright and Shaquem Griffin. The Legion of Boom has officially left the building, and the new look secondary is led by Shaquill Griffin (If it sounds familiar, its because his brothers name is right about his). Think about this: last year, they avoided Jimmy G twice and faced Josh Rosen in his debut. That may have helped the ranking of 14th in pass defense. There has just been a ton of veteran and impacting turnover throughout this team, plus the 12th hardest schedule in the league upcoming in 2019, AND coming off a season of which they were the 10th least affected team according to injury; add all of that to the above, and the Seahawks could be in for an outlying long year.
Arizona Cardinals – 5.5 Over/Under wins; +1500 to win the NFC West; 130/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Everyone on the offense. Literally everyone.
Outlook: The Cardinals may not lead the league in wins, but they do have a shot to lead the league in fun. The entire face of the franchise, minus the staple that is 16-year veteran Larry Fitzgerald, has shifted. Enter new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and number 1 draft pick Kyler Murray. 10 personnel – 4 wide receivers, 1 running backs, no tight ends – will be the main personnel package rolled out on Sundays, something we are used to seeing the day before in the college game. They’ve also switched back to a 3-4 (3 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers), something we will touch on down below. Let’s stick with Kyler first. Reports out of camp are the following: “Wow”. Now, its one thing to be ‘wow’ in a helmet and a black non-contact jersey. It’s another thing to do it with only 5 linemen blocking for you and grown men trying to psychically impose their will. Remember, NFL defenses are not comparable to Big 12 defenses, let alone any college defense. It remains to be seen if Kyler is going to be able to withstand that kind of beating for 16 games, or better yet: 1. Make no mistake about it, Kliff will be relying on David Johnson to take away some of this burden. Taken with a grain of salt due to the team’s entire ineptitude to compete last year, Johnson was awful. He hopes to get back to his 2016 self, both in the running and passing game. He could even line up at wide receiver in some sets, giving way to Chase Edmonds for some backfield work as well. At wide receiver, Larry leads the receiving core, with Sophomore Christian Kirk behind him looking for a breakout year. After that, 6th round draft pick KeeSean Johnson out of Fresno State is turning heads and is in line to be WR3 after Kirk and Fitz. Johnson is a fantasy sleeper this year! After that, Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler, both drafted before Johnson, are fighting for that 4th wideout in the 10 personnel, and both will probably get a chance. Isabella is an Edelman type, while Butler is a freak of nature for the position, but is raw and needs work on route running. Butler could be used right away in goal line situations due to his great hands and stature (6’5, 227 pounds). The offensive line, ranking 26th in pass protection last year, will need to do a better job to give Kyler time, but expect Kliff to help this with quick passes to get the ball out of his hands, especially early in the year. GUNS UP, PRO EDITION.
Back to the defense, who moves back to a 3-4, and most importantly allows for Chandler Jones to move back to outside linebacker, where he took the league by storm in 2017. They also add the walking nightmare that is Terrell Suggs “BALL SO HARD UNIVERSITY”. These two should be able to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and add to what was already a top 10 pass defense. Now, they will be without All-World corner Patrick Peterson for the first 6 games of the season due to suspension. It remains to be seen who will cover this, but Byron Murphy was drafted for a reason – some regarded him as the best corner in the class – and he is the early favorite in camp to start alongside Robert Alford or Tramaine Brock. DJ Swearinger is making his presence felt, both physically and emotionally, as he has stepped up as the leader of this secondary with his words and his play during camp. The front 7 needs to be better, as the Cardinals were a sieve on the ground last year. The move to the 3-4, finishing better than 23rd in adjusted games lost due to injury, and a better offense should help with this. Do I think the Cardinals are going to make the playoffs? No. Are they going to be a lot of fun to watch? You bet. Buckle up for Kliff and Co.
Overall 2019 Prediction:
Top Bets Summary:
Jared Goff 35/1 MVP
San Francisco 49ers make playoffs +220
Seattle Seahawks UNDER 8.5 wins +100
Seattle Seahawks won’t make playoffs -175
Kyler Murray OVER 21.5 Passing touchdowns -145