NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC West defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

The Rest: Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers

The Los Angeles Rams may have a lot of questionable elements going into the 2016 season, but the defensive line is not one of them. Led by All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald, who could be even faster this year with his off-season toning, the Rams defensive line will be one of the most intimidating in the league. Lining up next to Donald will be Michael Brockers, who is adept at stuffing the line, creating a duo that will force teams to build game plans that shy away from inside runs. On the ends, the Rams will start veterans William Hayes and Robert Quinn. Hayes was re-signed to fill in for former end Chris Long, and after a 2015 that reinforced his moniker “Big Play Hayes”, he will be in a great spot to continue his contribution to the tough line. Quinn ended last season with an injury and had some back surgery he will need to rehab from, but the longtime Rams fixture is one of the best rushers in the league and he can be expected to get right back into top form very quickly. Once back up to speed, he will solidify the Rams strongest position group.

The Seattle Seahawks led the league last year in rushing defense and will come out very strong once again, albeit without tackle Brandon Mebane, who was a nightmare for inside runs. However, the team will be returning tackle Ahtyba Rubin and dynamic veteran ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who combined for 19 sacks last year. Seattle may be looking to have second-round pick Jarran Reed complete their front after trading up for the promising Alabama standout, where he is set to use his large frame and immense strength to plug runs like Mebane and be another threat to the quarterback.

The defensive line for the Arizona Cardinals is a somewhat less emphasized one due to their 3-4 base defense, but they do have their All-Pro tackle Calais Campbell up front to cause some disruption. Nose tackle Corey Peters will be back this season after an Achilles tear ended his last one. Arizona will be looking to start first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche opposite Campbell, which could form a solid front, but it remains to be seen in action.

As for the San Francisco 49ers, who also run a 3-4 defense, they have good size but little experience in former Oregon Ducks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. Newly re-signed Quinton Dial adds leadership and a strong work ethic to the line that would be more threatening if Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams could avoid regular injuries.

Linebacker

The Best: Arizona Cardinals

The Rest: Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

Nobody blitzes like a Bruce Arians team, and he finds so much success at it because of his talented linebacker corps. The Cardinals run an interesting defensive front out of their 3-4, where standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon play hybrid linebacker-defensive back positions, which gives them a great run defense as well as solid coverage and additional blitzing pressure. Arians and company also picked up Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots in the off-season, who will look to surpass his 12.5 sacks this season on Arizona’s outside. Opposite of Jones will be solid rusher Markus Golden, and Kevin Minter will be rounding out the corps on the inside, after taking a leadership role on the defense and finding his rhythm in last year’s top five unit. The only issue with Arizona could be their lack of depth after failing to draft a linebacker this year, but their players have managed to stay healthy in the past, so the starting four should be in great position to lead the team to another excellent season.

Seattle will bring a tough group into 2016 with two of the best at the position lining up in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. The two were key to the Seahawks leading the league in run defense, holding teams to a measly average of 81.5 yards per game. The big question in their group will be the loss of strong side linebacker Bruce Irvin, who was a major part of their stalwart front seven. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard will be working in the veteran Mike Morgan to fill the big shoes, as well as a few other possible replacements, but finding someone with the run play and pass rushing ability of Irvin will be a serious challenge for the team.

Los Angeles had a lot of shuffling at the linebacker position in the off-season, releasing longtime middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and moving standout Alec Ogletree from the weak side to the vacant middle spot. Last year’s team leader in tackles, Mark Barron, will pick up the slack from Ogletree’s move and the longest tenured of the group, Akeem Ayers, will remain on the strong side after recording 47 tackles in 2015.  Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, this group could be a substantial addition to the Rams strong defense, but the change in leadership, as well as the lack of depth, could hurt them.

Meanwhile, San Francisco will bring another struggling position group to their defense this year. Led by All-Pro inside man NaVorro Bowman and solid pass rusher Aaron Lynch, the 49ers will have to see better play from their other two linebackers, Ahmad Brooks and Gerald Hodges, if they are going to improve on last year’s 29th ranked defense.

Cornerback

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

The Legion of Boom still sets the standard for the secondary in the NFC West, and the entire NFL for that matter. Not only do they have All-Pro Richard Sherman, who can always be counted on to bring big play and defensive leadership to a defense, but they have outstanding depth at the position. One of these corners includes original Legion of Boom member Brandon Browner, who rejoins the team in most likely a situational role, but in a pivotal one, nonetheless. Seattle will also have leading coverage persons like newly re-signed Jeremy Lane, nickel package favorite Marcus Burley, and Tharold Simon, who has recently been earning the highest praise from Sherman. The corner position will absolutely be one of Seattle’s strongest points in their top tier defense.

The Cardinals also have one the best secondaries in the NFL, and in Patrick Peterson, arguably the best cornerback in the league. The five-time Pro Bowler was at his career-best last season, leading the defensive backs all the way to the NFC Championship Game. However, once there, Peterson and his fellow corner Justin Bethel proved not enough to stop Cam Newton and the explosive Carolina Panthers, who were able to put up 324 yards and two touchdowns, against only one Peterson interception. However, the two still had a standout season and look ready to have an even bigger 2016. The NFC West has a strong cornerback presence and this shutdown tandem would be ranked number one in almost any other division.

The Rams have a lot of questions at corner after losing Janoris Jenkins to the New York Giants in free agency, but they did retain interception-oriented Trumaine Johnson. Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles does have decent depth with E.J. Gaines set to start and reclaim his position as a solid defender after sitting out last year due to injury. Lamarcus Joyner will be covering the slot, as is his specialty, and the newly-signed veteran Coty Sensabaugh will be there for some relief as well.

The 49ers will start their longest tenured cornerback Tramaine Brock, and that’s where the certainty ends. Opposite Brock, there is an open competition between Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser, and their three rookie draft picks. No one in the group has had much sustained success, so instability and mismatches could be another problem for San Francisco’s defense in the passing game this year.

Safety

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

Once again, Seattle shines in the safety position with two of the best in the game watching the deep threats in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Thomas was rebounding from a shoulder injury last year and Chancellor missed the first two games due to a holdout, but they still built one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL. If these two can hold up their stellar play in 2016, expect another top three passing defense from Seattle.

Arizona is not too far behind with star free safety Tyrann Mathieu, who will be rebounding from another ACL tear, and either new pickup Tyvon Branch or emerging star D.J. Swearinger. Either one will need to fill the position after the loss of Rashad Johnson, who was a defensive leader on the field. However, both Branch and Swearinger have shown consistent play and should find a fit in the fierce Cardinals secondary.

Again, the Rams had a key loss with free safety Rodney McLeod going to the Philadelphia Eagles. Los Angeles will return the solid former USC Trojan T.J. McDonald, who will be recovering from a shoulder injury that hit when he was on pace to record 90 tackles last year. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will most likely go with one of his favorites, Maurice Alexander, in McLeod’s spot after showing some vastly improved coverage skills and his penchant for run stuffing and hard hits.

San Francisco will line up veteran Antoine Bethea, who will be entering his 11th season after a torn pectoral ended his last season. Next to him will be Eric Reid, who has plateaued, if not declined, after his Pro Bowl rookie season. Second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt may get called up to a starting position as well, if not for his overall well-rounded talent, then simply to inject some new life into one of the NFL’s most ineffective defenses last year.

Special Teams

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

Seattle star kicker Steven Hauschka will return after continuing to be reliable under all levels of pressure. Punter Jon Ryan will also be back to pin offenses back in 2016. Rookie long snapper Drew Ferris will be looking to step in and complete the solid Seahawks kicking game.  Finally, Tyler Lockett will be tasked with returns again after turning both a punt and a kickoff into six points last year along with some very impressive returns throughout the season. Seattle’s squad will be primed for major success in special teams once again, adding even more depth to the solid football club.

Arizona returns kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who finished third in the league in scoring with 137 points. Punter Drew Butler will also return, hoping for a better season than his slumping 2015. Their biggest question mark will be the long snapper position after Mike Leach’s retirement, where the Cardinals will try out a couple of undrafted free agents to fill the pivotal role. David Johnson will no longer be returning kicks, due to his solidified starting spot; the responsibility will shift to talented running back Kerwynn Williams and speedy receiver J.J. Nelson, who will also return punts with a little relief from Patrick Peterson to be expected.

Los Angeles will have All-Pro punter Johnny Hekker working for another year with an average of 47.9 yards per punt. The struggling Greg Zuerlein will need to find some consistency after a very shaky 2015 or risk being replaced by undrafted free agent Taylor Bertolet. Long snapper Jake McQuaide will also return. Elusive receiver Tavon Austin and tackle-breaking phenom Benny Cunningham will return kicks, with rookies Pharoh Cooper and Mike Thomas possibly contributing, as well. The Rams have solid talent in the position group and if Zuerlein can pick up his slack, they will be in good shape.

Bruce Ellington is slated to return kicks this year after Jarryd Hayne retired. 41-year-old kicker Phil Dawson has played reliably for his tenure with the 49ers, but second-year punter Bradley Pinion may have to punt too often and see his numbers dip as a result. Hope lies in new coordinator Derius Swinton II and his ability to tighten ship.

Coaching

The Best: Arizona Cardinals

The Rest: Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

Bruce Arians is one of the best coaches in the NFL. He has led Arizona to some of the franchise’s biggest accomplishments and his schemes simply win football games. From his time with the Indianapolis Colts, he has proven himself as one of the best head coaches of the present day in both racking up wins and building explosive chemistry inside of a locker room. Injuries have stifled his team in the past, but he has surrounded himself with quality personnel and he is right on the verge of adding a championship to his stellar legacy.

In a close second spot is the always exciting to watch Pete Carroll. With a Super Bowl under his belt, as well as two NFC Championships, Carroll has succeeded in building a Seahawks team that wins consistently and when it counts. Always a threat in the conference and never a rare pick to win it all, Carroll leads his teams to their best play and has fostered some of the league’s most dangerous weapons, including Russell Wilson, the Legion of Boom, and Beast Mode himself, Marshawn Lynch.

As Jeff Fisher has been dubbed Mr. Seven-and-Nine, he will be on the hot seat in the return to Los Angeles. Fisher will need to find success early on with Jared Goff and the rest of the young offense, while maintaining his strong defense, if he wants to keep his job. He has had success in the past when in the hands of a strong quarterback, so a lot will depend on how fast Goff can acclimate. Overall, he should be a strong enough force to keep the Rams in decent shape, but that may not be enough to earn him a job next year.

New coach Chip Kelly will need some time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the 49ers and he will be doing it all under the microscope of his many critics, who will no doubt increase with every slip. He is bringing a very young staff with him to San Francisco and his work is cut out for him with a thin roster and a lot of problems that were not adequately solved in the off-season.

Check out the NFC West offensive breakdown.

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