(Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The Cardinals are at a crossroads with their current power structure. Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury are clearly on the hot seat. Aside from Kyler Murray, Keim has been an average-at-best drafter in the early rounds and Kingsbury has yet to establish much of an identity on offense despite trading for Deandre Hopkins and having the reigns for 2 years.
Offensively there is little cohesion. The run game has been good most of the Kingsbury tenure, but it has been inconsistent. Hopkins was highly targeted but rarely moved around the formation. Where is the NFL version of the AirRaid offense? There is too much, “Kyler save the day” in this offense. It’s not sustainable. The offense needs to evolve this year. The hope is the team gains an offensive identity. The veteran addition of Rodney Hudson will help stabilize the offensive line, but with its struggles last year, it will take more than Hudson to turn the line into a plus unit. The other linemen must step up.
I am honestly not sure what to think of the AJ Green signing. Reports out of camp are encouraging. The Green signing was a tremendous win-now move which could help, but Green looked washed and disinterested last year in Cincinnati. It could have been the situation, but for 6 million dollars this year the money may have been better spent elsewhere.
Rondale Moore is an exciting player and a guy I would want on my team. He is short, not small, fast, and strong. He might not ever be a WR1 on a team, but he is a guy that can give defense problems every week. Running back James Connor and guard Brian Winters round out any significant additions offensively and will contribute, but hardly move the needle.
I was expecting a defensive disaster last year and the Cardinals defense punched well above its weight. Vance Joseph did a very nice job with them this past year, but this year is another year of transition.
Gone are Patrick Peterson, Haason Reddick, Dre Kirkpatrick, Johnathan Joseph, and Chandler Jones has requested a trade. If Jones is traded, improving on last year's defense will be a tough assignment. Fret not, the Cardinals did bring in former NFL Defensive Player of the year JJ Watt and drafted Zaven Collins in the first round of the draft. Pair him with Isaiah Simmons and you have a versatile yet unproven LB corps. The Cardinals are in rough shape in the secondary. Solid yet unspectacular slot-corner Byron Jones is the lone holdover. New CB’s Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford have been brought in to man the position. The bad news is both are on the wrong side of 30 and coming off sub-par years. Because of all this churn, it's hard to see a pathway to a better defense than last year. Maintaining the performance from last year would be a worthy accomplishment
The Cardinals and the current regimes are under the gun to produce. This is the year they must make the jump to a playoff team. They need to do this in the toughest division in the NFL along with a great many questions on both sides of the ball. Even if the offense takes a step forward, I find it difficult to see the pass defense playing well enough for a deep playoff run.
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Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are coming off a playoff win, the top ranked defense, and have a brilliant head coach. However, there was a great deal of change this offseason with this team. Most notably the team traded 2 first-round picks and QB Jared Goff to Detroit for QB Matt Stafford. With this move, McVay is betting heavily that he alone can unlock Stafford’s potential that has gone unrealized for nearly 10 years. Defensively the Rams lost several key starters along with defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Defensive regression might be coming for the Rams.
With McVay steering the ship, the Rams offense will never be poor. He is that good. However, as the saying goes, “it ain't about the X's and the O’s. It's about the Jims and the Joes.” Meaning the scheme will only get you so far and you need players to execute to become a championship club. With that being said, McVay went out and got his guy, Matt Stafford. Technically, he also got his guy when they resigned Jared Goff, but that is neither here nor there. With Stafford, he is hoping to unlock a new dimension to the offense that Goff was unable to.
The loss of Cam Akers really hurts the offensive depth. Akers and Henderson would have been a formidable 1-2 punch in the running game, which is now down to only Henderson. Jake Funk and Xavier Jones round out the current stable of running backs. I would look for the Rams to take a good look at running backs who don't make the final cutdowns at the end of the preseason. The Rams will need a WR to step up as a true vertical threat in this offense. Woods and Kupp have been great with their YAC ability over the past several years, but neither is a big threat down the field. Tutu Atwell and Desean Jackson were both brought in to try and fill that role. Stafford and the WR’s creating a new vertical element is crucial for version 2.0 of the McVay offense.
When you lose a starting safety, starting corner, a rotational pass-rusher, and your defensive coordinator it is hard to duplicate success. It's even harder when the team was the #1 ranked defense in the league in a host of metrics. Defense, in general, is not consistent year to year. It's very difficult to maintain that elite level year after year. Will the defense stay good, probably. Will the defense be elite? Don't bet on it. Not only do the Rams have the personal losses to deal with they have a new coordinator in Raheem Morris who does not play the same scheme as Brandon Staley. Morris comes from the Tampa-2 school of thought. Now I know coordinators adapt, but this defensive scheme created by Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is not in Morris’ wheelhouse. Luckily the team does return all of its position coaches to help ease that transition. They also have Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey which surely helps. There are a lot of moving parts here on defense, I would expect a solid unit, but not quite to the level of what we saw last year in 2020.
The Rams have undergone a lot of transition on both sides of the ball. However, they have McVay. This is a team that could go 9-8 or be a legitimate super bowl contender. It really hinges on a few things. Stafford playing well and adapting to the scheme. The defense remaining top 10, the running game staying healthy, and being effective enough to be a worry for opposing defenses.
(Photo Credit: AP Photo / Stephen Brashear)
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are coming off an injury-plagued season yet again only this time. There are significant changes reverberating throughout the organization. Firstly, the 49ers made a bold move and traded three first-round picks to move up to the number three pick in the draft to select Trey Lance. Clearly, Lance is the future. The present is a bit murkier. Despite how good Lance has looked it appears that Jimmy Garoppolo will open the season as the starter. The question is how long will that last. Secondly, the 49ers have a new defensive coordinator. Robert Saleh left to become the head coach of the NY Jets. Demeco Ryans will take over for him this year. Ryans enjoyed a meteoric rise in San Francisco, starting off as the defensive quality control coach in 2017. He is now the youngest DC in the league at 36.
The offense has Kyle Shanahan calling plays and designing the offense. In my mind, he is the best play designer and play-caller in the league. The 49ers use, what much of the NFC West uses as its base offense. They use a version of the Kubiak/Shanahan offense that his father, Mike, created. However, he does much more than that. As all great coaches do, he is constantly evolving the offense.
The Lance/Garoppolo battle will be the biggest decision for the coach this year. When will he switch over to the rookie? When he does that, it will give the offense an extreme amount of versatility. Lance’s arm and legs will force defenses to cover all areas of the field. This is something that Garoppolo does not offer.
The 49ers made changes to the offensive personal outside of the QB as well. Most notably signing veteran center Alex Mack, drafting guard Aaron Banks, and running back Trey Sermon. These upgrades will surely bolster the line and running back room as it awaits the QB decision.
As good as the 49er offense looks on paper with TE George Kittle along with WR’s Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, the depth at both of those positions along with the O-line are a concern. Staying healthy, which has been a problem for the team in past years, is of the utmost importance.
As noted above, Demeco Ryans will take over as the new DC. It will be interesting to see what defense he deploys. One would expect it is a version of Saleh’s defense that heavily used quarters coverage and relies on the four-down linemen for pressure. Speaking of the down linemen, they are fearsome. San Fran has one of the best and deepest defensive end groups in the league if they stay healthy. With Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Samson Ekukam, and Arden Key at the defensive end, the 49ers have a great rotation. The interior of the line really hinges on, 2020 1st round pick, Javon Kinlaw to stay healthy and provide an interior push. Some of the ends do reduce inside, but in base sets, Kinlaw will be relied on to produce.
Fred Warner is an unbelievable athlete and linebacker. Now, he has the contract to go with it. He is now the highest-paid linebacker in the league. He holds down an otherwise solid yet, unspectacular group of linebackers.
The secondary is where it can all go wrong. The 49ers are thin here. They brought in 2 draft picks, Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir in the 3rd and 5th round respectively to help bolster the current group. This is a group that includes oft-injured Jason Verrett along with Emmanuel Mosley, K’waun Williams, and Dontae Johnson. It's hardly a star-studded secondary. However, if this group can play solidly, it might be all it needs if the front-four return to its dominant form.
This is a playoff team that hinges on two factors. How well and when Lance plays and if the team stays healthy in key areas. With injuries being random, one would expect the volume of injuries sustained by the 49ers to even out this year. Because of the amount of talent on this roster, expecting anything less than a playoff birth to be a huge disappointment.
(Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)
Let. Russ. Cook. In the past 3 years QB, Russell Wilson has nearly single-handedly pulled his team into the playoffs. However, the team has only one playoff win to show for it. Gone is offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and enter Shane Waldron. Waldron was one of the LA Rams coach Sean McVay’s most trusted Lieutenants. Now he finds himself looking to take Russel Wilson and the Seahawks offense to new heights. Waldron’s offense preaches balance which was missing and this is music to Head Coach Pete Carroll's ears. This is a critical year for Wilson, Carroll, and the Seahawks organization. Failure to have a deep playoff run and a top-10 offense could snowball into huge changes going into 2022.
Shane Waldron is the new sheriff in town to run the Seahawks offense and with that, there is a new offensive philosophy. Gone is the Air-Coryell-based offense of Brian Schottenheimer which favored a vertical passing attack that aggressively pushed the ball down the field. While this worked in spurts for the Seahawks the past 3 years, it was inconsistent due to the inability to adjust to the defenses. While they tried, the offense was unable to come up with a consistent “change-up” and was rendered ineffective versus good defenses. This was not all the offensive designs' fault. Russell Wilson also played poorly down the stretch and deserves some of the blame. However, good coaches and put their players in a position to succeed and Schotty didn't do that enough. Waldron’s offense is based on the McVay style of offense which is derived from the Kubiak/Shanahan system which favors stretching the defense horizontally in the run game and in the pass. Early returns are he will incorporate some of the vertical elements as well to take advantage of Wilson’s great deep accuracy as well as WR DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett’s ability to get deep. This offense will also benefit Chris Carson and the rest of the RB corps. The combination of the previous regimes' gap scheme combined with the new wide-zone will surely help generate a more consistent run game to keep defenses guessing.
Contrary to popular belief, the Seahawks offensive line was solid last year. No, they weren't great, but they were much better than outsiders realized. It has been bolstered by the acquisition of guard Gabe Jackson. He will be a huge upgrade to Mike Iupati who, since retired, and was a shell of himself last year. The arrow is pointed up for the Seahawks offense this year, but consistency throughout the season will be the true test for this unit.
It was a tale of two defenses last year for the Seahawks. In the first half of the season, the team was horrible, historically bad. Then, it flipped. The trade for Carlos Dunlop helped, but it was more than that. The team was really playing the scheme well. There were fewer busted coverages along with solid run defense and an invigorated pass rush. The Seahawks ended as you would expect for a team with the Jekyll and Hyde season such as that, dead in the middle. Lead by linebacker Bobby Wagner and safely Jamal Adams, Seattle looks to build on the play from the second half of last year. The defensive line has brought in many reinforcements along with two second-year players that have really shown out thus far. Sophomore players Alton Robinson and Darrell Taylor both are looking to break out and provide the pass rush depth that the Pete Carroll scheme needs while only rushing 4. There are several young players that need to progress in the program, if that happens, the defense will be in a much better spot than in 2020. The secondary is a curious lot. Great Safety play highlights the group. The cornerbacks are a mishmash of draft picks, cast-offs, UDFAs, and reclamation projects. If anything, I am confident Carroll can cobble together a competent group. Will competent be enough? Corner is the biggest Achilles heel to the Seahawks in 2021.
This team is in need a deep playoff run to keep Wilson’s trust in Carroll and the organization. The truth is this team can do that. It could also blow up spectacularly. While I could never see the team be below.500 I could see the defense regress and be the real cause of issue with Seattle. Most likely, Seattle has a worse record than last year, but is a better team overall and is ready to make a run at the NFC West title.
(Photo Credit: Jennifer Stewart / AP)
Twitter: Ron Brown @headbutturface
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