Arizona Cardinals – Covered by Shane Richardson
Key Pickups: QB Carson Palmer, DE John Abraham, ILB Karlos Dansby, T Eric Winston.
Any time a team fields possibly the worst collection of quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, just about any replacement they bring in will be considered a “key pickup”. Queue Palmer, who Cardinals’ fans are treating like the second coming of Kurt Warner…which he isn’t. (Editors note: Raiders fan here. Good luck with Captain Garbage Time.) What he is though is a significant upgrade over last year’s mess and a quarterback who is well suited to play in the Cardinals new vertical offense. Abraham, after posting a year in which Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked him 5th among 4-3 defensive ends, was a solid signing for a defense that is expected to have 4-3 looks featured throughout the season. Dansby, after underperforming his contract in Miami, comes back to Arizona, and provides linebacking depth. Winston, who hasn’t missed a start in five years and was among the best right tackles last year, was a fantastic signing and provides much needed leadership and help on the offensive line.
Key Losses: RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, CB Greg Toler, S Kerry Rhodes.
Bigger names may have parted ways with the Cardinals, but these three players the Cardinals should have strived to retain. Rhodes was an exceptional get when the they traded for him with the New York Jets in 2010 and each year he played well. PFF ranked him 4th among safeties last year and his loss will be felt on a revamped secondary. Stephens-Howling was a solid 3rd down utility back who had great value in the passing game and on kickoff returns; the Cardinals chose not to match the 1-year contract for $780K he received from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Toler was also a key loss, and while PFF ranked him a respectable 27th among cornerbacks, the Indianapolis Colts gave him a 3-year, $15M contract, which was commensurate with his market value.
Off-Season: The Cardinals cleaned house with the above coaching staff and also fired General Manager Rod Graves and promoted Steve Keim. Keim has been thought highly of in NFL circles, and it was only a matter of time before he got his shot as a general manager. With a background in scouting, his fingerprints have been on the Cardinals drafts for years. At
a gathering with fans, Keim said in previous drafts he lobbied for Adrian Peterson and Jay Cutler; the Cardinals selected Levi Brown and Matt Leinart. Keim said he almost quit over it after Brown. Now that he has the final say, it will be interesting to see how well the Cardinals’ drafts work out.
The Cardinals completely revamped the coaching staff, firing Ken Whisenhunt and allowing highly regarded defensive coordinator Ray Horton to depart. After being hired to replace Whisenhunt, reigning NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians brought in former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to coach the defense and former Colts offensive line coach Harold Goodwin as offensive coordinator. Also of note is assistant head coach Tom Moore, who coached Peyton Manning for 13 years.
Draft Picks/Grade: G Jonathan Cooper, ILB Kevin Minter, S Tyrann Mathieu, DE/OLB Alex Okafor, G Earl Watford, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Ryan Swope, RB Andre Ellington. The Cardinals addressed the most glaring need on their offense, which was the interior offensive line, not the tackles. Cooper has the potential to be a 10-year Pro Bowler and will excel in a zone-blocking scheme. Minter and Okafor will give depth to the linebacking corps, and Mathieu will help fill the voids left in the secondary. Watford provided depth at guard and will likely see time as a developmental player. Running backs Taylor and Ellington give the Cardinals in the run game and if they hit on either, it will be worth the picks. They missed on Swope who retired due to concussions after suffering another before training camp started. Overall, the Cardinals had a solid draft and should get quality playing time from at least four of them.
Upcoming Season: Vegas odds have the Cardinals as the worst team in the NFC and the worst team in the NFL behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. Given their division is projected to be the toughest in the NFL, it is highly likely the Cardinals will be hard pressed to get wins in the division. However, with numerous key injuries to powerhouses Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers in training camp already, they should be able to do better than their 1-5 record last year. Their non-division record features the NFC South and AFC South, with the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles thrown in. Barring catastrophic injuries to the Seahawks and 49ers, playoff expectations are a fantasy at this point. With the addition of Palmer, the Cardinals should improve 3-4 games over their 2012 record of 5-11; however, with a revamped secondary, the defense will likely actually cost them a game or two this year. Expect the Cardinals to finish in the neighborhood of 7-9.
Surprising offensive player to watch: Michael Floyd. Palmer will be the focus of the Cardinals success or failure this year and more than enough has been written about him. The breakout Cardinal of the Year may be wide receiver Floyd. Given the change in offensive philosophy under Arians, the Cardinals can be expected to push the ball downfield…a lot. This will create a ton of opportunities for Floyd, as All World wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will command the bulk of the coverage from opposing defenses. With Fitzgerald mentoring him, Floyd will continue to hone his exceptional ability to catch the ball at the highest point while shielding defenders away with his body. Despite few opportunities under the previous staff, expect Floyd to be in the team’s highlights every week and average six catches, 85 yards, and .6 TDs per game.
Surprising defensive player to watch: Kevin Minter. Minter will contribute right away for the Cardinals due to the suspension of one of their most important defensive players, Daryl Washington. Compound his natural abilities and high football IQ with the two defensive stalwarts in defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, and it is very plausible to see the rookie lead the Cardinals in tackles by season’s end. Don’t forget he will also have rotational defensive end Abraham helping taking up blockers in front of him.
Final Record: 7-9
Wins: Detroit, Carolina, @Jacksonville, Indianapolis, @Philadelphia, St Louis, @Tennessee
Losses: @New Orleans, @Tampa Bay @San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, @Seattle, San Francisco
St. Louis Rams – Covered by Alex Mann
Key Pickups: OT – Jake Long & TE – Jared Cook.
Obviously both players will be very big contributors on a very young and talented Rams roster. Long does have some durability issues, which stem from his injuries sustained while with the Dolphins, but he is still looked at as one of the better Left Tackles in the NFL. Jared Cook provides familiarity with Jeff Fisher, as he was his former coach in Tennessee. Cook has tremendous talent, but injuries, plus lack of production from his quarterbacks, and of course Cooks own inconsistency, provide a challenge. Perhaps he can find a way to bring his game to the next level under Fisher and with Sam Bradford, who in a way, is in a “Prove It” year. He also provides a viable Tight End to a unit that fielded players like, Cory Harkey, Lance Kendricks, Mike McNeill, and Matthew Mulligan.
Key Losses: WR – Danny Amendola, RB – Steven Jackson, & S – Craig Dahl
Okay so maybe all of these guys were replaced, in their own way, but perhaps the biggest loss of the three was Steven Jackson. Yes his play was beginning to fall off, but his leadership in the locker room and on the field was unparalleled on that roster. He now goes to a team that will compete for a Super Bowl, and he will likely be the driving force of that team.
Amendola was replaced by two rookies, whose impact will be felt immediately, but it will be interesting to see how quickly the chemistry between them and Bradford develops.
Off-season: Jeff Fisher returns for another year as the Rams Head Coach, after posting an overall record of 7-8-1, and a record of 4-1-1 in the division. They even brought in Rob Ryan for an interview as their Defensive Coordinator, but did not hire him. Greg Williams who had been suspended in 2012 for the Saint Bounty Gate scandal was fired on January 2nd, and would hire Tim Walton on February 12th to replace him as DC. There was not a lot of changes this offseason. The Rams continued to build an already young and talented roster, with more youth and talent. While they’re not primed to challenge the Seahawks or Niners for the Division Crown, they’re definitely an offseason away from return to the Postseason in a very competitive and scary NFC West.
Draft: WR – Tavon Austin (WVU), LB – Alec Ogletree (Georgia), S – TJ McDonald (USC), WR – Bailey Stedman (WVU), G – Barrett Jones (Alabama), DB – Brandon McGee (Miami), RB – Zac Stacy (Vanderbilt)
A very solid draft in my opinion. The selected two really good receivers, that finally gives Bradford a down field target, and not just that, provides him with receivers who will likely be really good in the NFL for years. Ogletree was a monster in Georgia, giving him the rank as the 55th best player in this years draft, and as the third best OLB in the draft. I would rank it as the second best draft in the NFC West, behind the Cardinals. I would give it a grade of A-.
Surprising defensive player: Running Back Daryl Richardson. Last year he showed glimpses of being something special. This year with no one in front of him, he’s primed to have a good year. The Rams upgraded their Offensive Line which was hit by injuries, and just inconsistent play so Richardson should have good holes to run through, even in a Division with stiff run Defenses.
Surprising offensive player: Defensive End Chris Long. Long was snubbed of a Pro Bowl for his third consecutive year. He posted 11.5 sacks last season, and lead his team in QB hits and hurries. He’s not getting any younger, but he is still on the right side of 30 for two more years.
Final Record: 9-7
Wins: Arizona, @ Atlanta, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Seattle, Tennessee, @ Indy, Chicago, Tampa Bay
Losses: Dallas, @Houston, @Carolina, @ San Francisco, @ Arizona, New Orleans, @ Seattle
San Francisco 49ers – Covered by Justin Arbogast
Key Pickups: WR Anquan Boldin, WR Austin Collie, OL Adam Snyder, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, S Craig Dahl, QB Colt McCoy, K Phil Dawson, DT Glenn Dorsey.
Both Boldin and Collie come off as great signings considering the 49ers are very thin at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree is out with an Achilles injury and Mario Manningham was placed on the PuP list, missing at least six games. Randy Moss has unofficially retired and AJ Jenkins was traded to the Chiefs in exchange for WR Jonathan Baldwin, whom has been disappointing since being drafted 26th overall by Kansas City. Anquan and Austin should help the 49ers move the chains, as long as they both can stay healthy. Adam Snyder returns to the 49ers after a one-year vacation in Arizona. It was stupid that he left in the first place, and now he’s back, providing the team with great depth. Asomugha and Dahl are great pickups in the secondary. While neither is guaranteed to start, both are starting caliber guys that should have 49ers fans thrilled. McCoy adds to a QB corps that needs depth, and he’s a competent enough guy to backup. I’ll get to Dawson later, and Dorsey is just another bruiser along the defensive line.
Key Losses: S Dashon Goldson, TE Delanie Walker, WR Ted Ginn Jr., DE Ricky Jean-Francois, DT Isaac Sopoaga,
Dashon Goldson was unable to reel in a long-term deal with the team after they placed the franchise tag on him a season ago. He’ll be missed, but they made up for his loss in the draft and free agency. Losing Delanie Walker may hurt this team more than many think. He is one of the leagues premier run blockers and he has a great set of hands. His versatility was one of the biggest things about him, and he’ll now be showing that off as a starter in Tennessee. Ted Ginn Jr was a guy that helped more on Special Teams than on offense, but given the depth for San Francisco in the wide receivers room, he might have been a nice piece on offense. RJF and Isaac Sopoaga weren’t the biggest baddest guys, but they helped make that defensive line deadly. They’re underrated products that the league will soon be talking about more.
Off-season: The first thing the 49ers did was trade QB Alex Smith to the Chiefs for two second round picks. A great move for both parties. Everyone knew that Smith wasn’t coming back to be a backup, and he proved that he had what it takes to win in the NFL. Their next move was signing Tackle Anthony Davis to a five-year deal, a deserved deal for a cornerstone of the best offensive line in football. This helps keep Colin Kaepernick upright, something that needs to happen for the
49ers to remain contenders. Have you ever heard of Aldon Smith? Well, he wouldn’t be the beast that he is without Justin Smith, and the 49ers were smart to lock him up for another two years, plus they saved money doing so. The two biggest moves in my opinion though were trading for Anquan Boldin and signing Phil Dawson. Boldin comes from the Super Bowl Champion Ravens and he’s a pretty damn good player still. The 49ers also are running low on receivers so Boldin should get the lions share of work on offense. As far as Dawson, David Akers was terrible last year. Phil has been one of the more consistent kickers in the last decade or so. He’ll make sure 49ers fans are comfortable deep in their recliners every time he kicks, rather than having them on the edge of their seats, Akers style. Nnamdi Asomugha was another significant signing as well for the niners. They have one of, if not the best, defenses in the NFL. Asomugha was once considered the best CB in the game before an offensive line coach thought he could coach defense in Philly and made Asomugha look like a bum. If all holds well, he should be just another ball hawk in this secondary.
Draft: (1) Eric Reid, S, LSU (2) Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, DE, Florida St.; Vance McDonald, TE, Rice (3) Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn (4) Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech; Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (5) Quinton Dial, DE, Alabama (6) Nick Moody, LB, Florida St. (7) B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida; Carter Bykowski, OT, Iowa St.; Marcus Cooper, CB, Rutgers.
The 49ers lost Dashon Goldson pretty quick once free agency opened, so that made their plan of attack a little different in the draft. They had acquired Craig Dahl, but the drafting of Eric Reid was an outstanding addition to their secondary. I had Reid slated as the number one safety in the draft and he slid all the way down for the Niners to snatch him up. Tank Carradine is a bowling ball on defense and many had him projected in the first round, a solid addition to an already beastly d-line. Vance McDonald could see the field pretty quick after the 49ers lost Delanie Walker in free agency. He’s a decent all-around player that could get the job done if need be. Marcus Lattimore may be the steal of the draft though – once thought of as a top ten player before a gruesome injury left him sliding. The 49ers are the deepest team in the league at running back, so it helps that Lattimore can sit until he’s ready. In a few years he could be the talk of the town in the league.
Upcoming Season: The 49ers are probably the hungriest team in the league this season, after back-to-back years of falling just shy of a championship. They’ve been so close with two different quarterbacks and have retained their entire coaching staff – impressive for a team that’s been so good. The consistency is key, the systems are the same and there’s not too much to learn. They’ve solidified their personnel on both sides of the ball and they’re in prime position to win the NFC. In my opinion there’s only one team that stands in their way and that’s their division rival Seattle Seahawks. The NFC West is going to be fun to watch this year with these two teams and it could come right down to the wire. They’ve both bettered on offense, defense and special teams. It’s going to make this season one to remember.
Surprising defensive player: CB Nnamdi Asomugha. I might get a lot of hate on this one, but I truly think Nnamdi is going to have a bounceback season. Juan Castillo didn’t know what he was doing in Philly with him, and the 49ers have one of the best defensive coordinators in the league. Asomugha is a true press coverage corner and the 49ers will utilize that. He might not have multiple picks like he did in Oakland, but he won’t let a lot of balls get past him.
Surprising offensive player: TE Vernon Davis. Vernon Davis probably isn’t much of a surprise here, but he’s going to be getting the bulk of the work now that he has a good rapport with Colin Kaepernick. He was held back in the offense before the playoffs last season, but became one of CK7’s favorite targets. He’s an explosive athlete that can line up at tight end, as well as wide receiver in some packages. With the injuries to the receiving corps, expect Vernon Davis to make his mark as one of the best tight ends in the game.
Final Record: 12-4. Wins: vs. GB, vs. IND, vs. AZ, @ TEN, @ JAX, vs. CAR, @ NO, @ WAS, vs. STL, vs. SEA, @ TB, @ CAR. Losses: @ SEA, @ STL, vs. HOU, vs. ATL
Seattle Seahawks – Covered by Austin Peat
Key Pickups: Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett
Key Losses: Jason Jones, Alan Branch, Leon Washington
Off-season: The Seattle Seahawks had one of the better off-seasons, keeping their coaching staff and front office in place (almost) while attacking their needs viciously with a win-now mentality. They focused on their weakest spot first, which is the pass rush. The signing of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett from free agency addressed this need immediately and has turned Seattle into a solid all-around sound NFL team. It was crucial they sign these two pass-rushing monsters while Chris Clemons is still on the mend from knee surgery. Signing Kam Chancellor to a contract extension was necessary to keep the ‘Legion of Boom’ in tact as it was and still is Seattle’s strongest suit. The best move of Seattle’s off-season was giving QB Russell Wilson someone to throw to, and it doesn’t get much better than former Viking wide-out Percy Harvin. It’s already difficult enough to keep your eye on Wilson and his speedy elusiveness and willingness to take off on foot on a moments notice, but now you have to respect the arm and who you’ll have to combat to stop a completion from happening. Things were looking great for Seattle until Harvin decided on unfortunate season-ending surgery. Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, worked under Pete Carroll in 2010. He’ll be the man who has the daunting task of replacing one of Seattle’s most valued assistant coaches in Gus Bradley, whose services now lie in Jacksonville.
Draft: RB Christine Michael (Texas A&M), DT Jordan Hill (Penn State), WR Chris Harper (Kansas State), DT Jesse Williams (Alabama), CB Tharold Simon (Louisiana State), TE Luke Willson ( Rice), RB Spencer Ware (LSU), G Ryan Seymour (Vanderbilt), DT Jared Smith (New Hampshire), OT Michael Bowie (Northeastern State) Overall Grade: A
The Seahawks traded away their 56th pick to Baltimore for the 62nd pick, a fifth-round pick, and a sixth-round pick. The would-be Kansas State LB pick in Arthur Brown would have been a great selection for Seattle, as he would have fit a Seahawks need. Instead, Seattle traded the pick away, and went with a running back as their first draft pick. All signs point to Seattle looking to the future with this pick. They’re already stacked at running back. This pick signals life after Lynch and furthering the RB depth and development for the future. Needing to replace Alan Branch, Seattle bit on DT Jordan Hill, who fits the ‘Hawks defensive scheme nicely. He’ll need to improve on his run blocking, but is supreme in the pass rush. He has some raw skills that few mid-round prospects possess. Chris Harper at wide receiver was a good third draft choice as he’s stout and strong and will fight for the possession, and is very hard to bring down after the catch, but Seattle placed him on the practice squad, leaving the door open for division rival San Francisco to swoop in and benefit from the wide-out prospect. He’ll be a nice fit on a team that’s lacking wide receivers.
Jesse Williams is a solid pick for Seattle, as he was projected as a second-round talent from Alabama. His stock dropped when he was injured in the BCS National Championship Game (knee). Barring injury, Williams will be a valuable run stuffer. If he can manage to stay healthy, he will be considered a steal for Seattle. Tharold Simon would be drafted next. While his on-field ability is spectacular, he came with a bit of baggage as he was arrested just prior to the draft for public intimidation, resisting an officer, and unnecessary noise violations. He’ll start the season on the PUP list. While the Seahawks weren’t able to get the more talented Vance McDonald from Rice, they settled for the next best thing in Luke Willson. The need here comes in the form of depth. He comes with lots of athleticism and upside. Seattle’s next pick also comes in the form of depth and development as they select Spencer Ware. It’s not likely he’ll be in the running for the 3rd running back with Christine Michael drafted first, but he’s a raw talent that looks to hit defenders similar to Marshawn Lynch. Next comes versatility in guard Ryan Seymour. He started as a tackle, but switched to guard mid-way through the 2011 season and handled the transition exceptionally well. This makes for an all around solid selection.
The Seahawks wandered into widely unknown territory with the selection of Ty Powell from Harding. If his pass rushing skills can excell from Division II to the pro level, he could easily be a first-year player in the league. He has plenty of upside, but needs to bulk up on his frame. Jared Smith was selected next. He played defensive tackle in college, but reports indicate that Seattle has plans for him at guard, most likely due to his size. It’s unknown how the switch will affect this young man. The last pick could very well be a diamond in the rough kind of selection with Michael Bowie out of Northeastern State. Some off-field issues that resulted in the violation of team rules sent this OT packing from Oklahoma State to Northeastern. Prior to the transfer, he had a fourth-round grade. He is a capable starter at the college level, and should he carry over his game to the NFL, the same can be said as a pro.
Upcoming Season: Seattle enters the 2013-14 to make it further into the playoffs and exceed their play beyond the division rival 49ers, the Seahawks greatest opposition. Seattle looks to pick right up where they left off. Falling short to the Falcons last year in the playoffs leaves the Seahawks hungry to get back into the hunt. I wouldn’t expect a sophomore slump from the amazing Russell Wilson at quarterback. I anticipate that he’ll further his legacy and drastically improve from an impressive first year. The team as a whole will further their effectiveness as stability is in place. Everyone has had time to gel, and the core pieces a team requires to be successful in this league are in place. Wilson has a great advantage as a QB. He’s not very tall, making it difficult for defenders to keep an eye on him. He can throw the deep ball just as quickly as he can burn you on the ground if you don’t contain him. The read option becomes dangerous when you have a skittle-crazed train in Marshawn Lynch backing you up.
The NFC West was looking to be favoring Seattle until newly acquired wide receiver Percy Harvin went out for the year due to injury. Now the passing attack will fall on Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, and Golden Tate. Even if the passing game does fall short, Seattle is stacked at running back, and even more so if you consider Wilson a potential runner. If Seattle fails to move the ball in exchange for TD’s, the secondary, Seattle’s cornerstone, will get you the ball back and keep the opponent off the board, so long as Richard Sherman backs up all the talk he’s been spitting, especially when it comes to rights as the best corner in the league. The Seahawks will be fine so long as the ‘Legion of Boom’ continues it’s painful reputation to the competition. Don’t bet on Seattle losing any games at home either. The 12th man certainly gives the Seahawks an absolute advantage, and visiting teams almost have to assume that’s one for the loss column. You have to stick with the play from the huddle as communicating on the line for an audible is damn-near impossible. Seattle will take steps forward this year rather than steps back, much like many other NFC teams.
Surprising Offensive Player: With Percy Harvin down and out, someone on the receiver core must step up. Seattle can’t depend solely on the run. I’m putting my chips on Sidney Rice to pick up the slack and put on a surprising performance game in and game out. Seattle really needs him to step up and be the man this year, and I expect just that to happen. Rice has the advantage as Wilson is very good on his feet, thus extending the play, allowing Rice to break free of coverage for big gains. We’ll see the usual from Lynch and Wilson this season, but expect Rice to have a coming-out party.
Surprising Defensive Player: I’m expecting big things from newly acquired Cliff Avril. Seattle desperately needed a supreme pass rush, and they signed just that in Avril. With a secondary that’s sure to give quarterbacks and receivers fits, there won’t be as much time to let the ‘Legion of Boom’ dissolve when you have Cliff Avril clawing his way into the pocket. Not only will Seattle get huge hits and explosive plays in the secondary, but they’ll also get some play-making action on the line as well, something Seattle isn’t accustomed to getting. I think all the hard work in free agency will work in Seattle’s favor, and Avril will benefit with a break-out performance in his new home with the Seahawks.
Final Record: 11-5
Wins: @ Panthers, VS 49ers, VS Jaguars, VS Titans, @ Cardinals, VS Buccaneers, VS Vikings, VS Saints, @ Giants, VS Cardinals, VS Rams
Losses: @ Texans, @ Colts, @ Rams, @ Falcons, @ 49ers