Top to bottom, the NFC West was the conference’s toughest division in 2014. Seattle made their second consecutive Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals also earned a postseason spot. San Francisco finished a disappointing 8-8 a year after making the NFC Championship game; but the difficulty of playing in the West certainly didn’t help their cause. As for St. Louis, they were 6-10 but showed some promise that will help them compete in 2015. Speaking of which, Seattle still looks like the favorite, but there should be some shakeup in other spots, which we’ll discuss below.
4th in Division: San Francisco 49ers; 5-11 W/L Projection
Strengths: If there’s one thing that San Francisco did very well last year, it was run the football. They ranked fourth in the league with 136 rushing YPG, and this may not change under new head coach Jim Tomsula’s run-heavy philosophy. Frank Gore may no longer be carrying the ball here, but the franchise is hoping that second-year player Carlos Hyde can step into the role. New weapons RB Reggie Bush and WR Torrey Smith will help improve the offense too, meaning QB Colin Kaepernick may have a little more success than his poor campaign last year.
Weaknesses: Many of the prominent players who carried San Francisco to the NFC title game in 2012 and ’13 retired or left through free agency. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Perrish Cox, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis are some of the key starters who are gone from last year. Tomsula may have some quality players to replace them, but lack of depth will be a huge problem on both sides of the ball. A new era has started in San Francisco and the road to wins may be slow at first.
3rd in Division: St. Louis Rams; 7-9 W/L Projection
Strengths: St. Louis only tallied 40 sacks last year, but this statistic isn’t always indicative of the pressure that a team puts on quarterbacks. The Rams boast a very deep D-line that includes Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and, now, free agent Nick Fairley. If the below-average secondary (especially since losing CB E.J. Gaines to injury) can hold coverage long enough, St. Louis should harass QBs all year.
Weaknesses: The offense looks to be a reincarnation of last season – with the addition of quarterback Nick Foles – so don’t expect much here. Tavon Austin needs to show some development after being drafted 8th overall in 2013, because the rest of the receiving corp just isn’t very good. St. Louis hoped they had solved running back with the addition of Todd Gurley, but he’ll be out until the second half of the season. So once again, Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham will try to see what kind of yardage they can muster.
2nd in Division: Arizona Cardinals; 10-6 W/L Projection
Strengths: The Cardinals aren’t particularly strong in one offensive area, but the sum of parts should equal moving the ball quite frequently. Everything begins with QB Carson Palmer, who was playing well until injuring his knee just six games into the season. He’ll have some good weapons to throw the ball to, with Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd all back. Andre Ellington, rookie David Johnson and Chris Johnson form what should be a productive, 3-headed backfield.
Weaknesses: Last year’s strength could be its weakness with the defense losing DE Darnell Dockett, DT Dan Williams and CB Antonio Cromartie to free agency, while LB Larry Foote retired. CB Patrick Peterson should lead what remains, but even he struggled in 2014 after being diagnosed with diabetes. The hope is that he has the disease under control and continues being his dominant self. Even if this is the case, though, the D-line needs to improve on their 35 sacks from a year ago, which may be difficult with no key offseason additions.
1st in Division: Seattle Seahawks; 12-4 W/L Projection
Strengths: Provided Kam Chancellor ends his holdout soon, Seattle will once again sport the league’s most impressive secondary. New addition Cary Williams more than makes up for Brandon Browner’s defection to New England, Add in C Richard Sherman and S Earl Thomas and the “Legion of Boom” won’t miss a beat. Linebacker Bobby Wagner will be stalking opposing running backs and helping this team potentially make another Super Bowl.
Weaknesses: It’s hard to pick holes on this team, but receiver and the O-line have some question marks heading into 2015. Adding TE Jimmy Graham was huge and will give QB Russell Wilson a great No. 1 target. However, wide receiver is quite thin with Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette being the top options. The Seahawks gave away C Matt Ungar in the Graham trade and they lost James Carpenter to the Jets. Still, these problems may not be enough to slow down yet another highly talented Seahawks team.