2018 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Offense

2018 NFC West Breakdown

During 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 offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2018 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Offense

Quarterback

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

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

The core that inspired the Seahawks’ period of dominance in this division has largely disintegrated. However, they remain the only team whose quarterback, Russell Wilson, has consistently proven he can carry them to victory.

Wilson led the Seahawks to a 9-7 record last season despite playing behind a dreadful offensive line. Though he posted a career-low completion percentage (61.3), Wilson led the league with 34 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. Able to escape pressure and make remarkable plays on the move, Wilson is arguably the league’s most dynamic quarterback. However, there may be increased doubt over whether he is the best in his division should Jimmy Garoppolo produce more of the performances he delivered for the 49ers in 2017.

In leading the 49ers on a five-game winning streak to end last season, Garoppolo displayed impressive poise and accuracy. As he proved in that run, Garoppolo can throw with anticipation with pressure in his face and complete off-platform passes. He has also shown the ability to contort his arm angle to make more difficult throws as the pocket collapses.

Garoppolo should have the benefit of throwing behind an improved offensive line in 2018. The same cannot be said for Sam Bradford, the Cardinals presumptive starter. Bradford will be protected by a shaky line, but when at his best he can be a devastatingly effective quarterback.

Bradford has one of the better arms in the NFL but his persistent knee problems have hampered his career. Should he again fail to stay healthy the Cardinals can call on Josh Rosen, the most pro-ready quarterback in this year’s draft. Rosen boasts an extremely impressive deep ball and can throw with anticipation at every level. Like Garoppolo, he is calm with pressure in his face and were it not for his inexperience and Bradford’s injury history, the Cardinals would have a strong case for having the best quarterback situation in the division.

It speaks to the abilities of Rams head coach Sean McVay that they were able to win the NFC West with the worst quarterback situation in the division. There can be no denying Jared Goff‘s sophomore year was excellent. However, his deep ball is hugely inconsistent and he will need to take another step to silence those who believe his play was solely a product of McVay’s scheme.

Running Back

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

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

It is a nightmare to try to separate Todd Gurley and David Johnson. They each excel between the tackles and in space, win with both elusiveness and power and influence the passing game.

They have each recorded a season with 2,000 scrimmage yards. However, Gurley’s extra gear in the open field gives the Rams star the edge. Gurley will be backed up by John Kelly, who could prove a steal in the sixth round. The Cardinals, meanwhile, will hope rookie Chase Edmonds and T.J. Logan can keep Johnson fresh to an extent where he can reproduce his best.

The 49ers are banking on Jerick McKinnon making the leap in a Kyle Shanahan scheme that relies heavily on the outside zone run and backs who catch the ball. Their logic appears sound given McKinnon’s speed, elusiveness, and proficiency in space. Matt Breida should prove a more than capable complement after outplaying Carlos Hyde in his rookie season.

Trying to predict the Seahawks backfield has been an exercise in futility. Seattle has struggled to get a running game going in recent years, and their immediate hopes rest with Chris Carson. Carson was already in the lead for the starting role by the time Rashaad Penny suffered a finger injury. The first-round pick Penny has since had surgery.

Carson is a hard-nosed but fluid workhorse while Penny’s vision, burst, and change-of-direction ability saw him excel in college. There are a number of names competing for a spot on the depth chart along with that duo. However, C.J. Prosise, whose speed and receiving skills saw him excel early in an injury-interrupted career, carries the most upside. The Seahawks backfield is talented, but it is young and largely unproven.

Wide Receiver

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

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

Goff’s upturn coincided with the emergence of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, the duo proving ultra-reliable weapons in the top scoring offense in football. Woods enjoyed a career year (56 catches, 781 yards, and five touchdowns). Kupp’s route-running craft and skills after the catch helped him make 62 receptions for 869 yards and five scores as a rookie.

They are joined by Brandin Cooks, who came over in a trade from the New England Patriots and will look to become the downfield target Sammy Watkins failed to be. Cooks is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season and should flourish under McVay.

There is every chance, though, that the best receiving corps in the division could soon reside in the Bay Area. Marquise Goodwin shed his reputation of just being a speedy deep threat in 2017, making plays at every level of the defense and developing a rapport with Garoppolo that has shown no signs of slowing down in the preseason.

Pierre Garcon returns from injury to provide a dependable veteran possession wideout who can still stretch the field. Trent Taylor became a go-to target for Garoppolo from the slot, making 43 catches and boasts the quickness and hands to have another strong year. Much will also be expected of rookie Dante Pettis, a 2018 second-rounder, is a nuanced route-runner with speed to burn. Pettis excels at making contested catches and should thrive from the Z receiver position and the slot.

Such options are in short supply in Seattle. Doug Baldwin is the clear number one and his proclivity for making contested catches will be crucial to the offense. Beyond Baldwin, the Seahawks have a veteran stumbling towards the end of his career in Brandon Marshall and a host of unproven talents. Tyler Lockett will look to recapture his 2015 form, while Jaron Brown arrives from Arizona out to build on a career year. Yet preseason suggests seventh-round rookie David Moore could have a greater impact than both.

It is a similar situation in Arizona. Larry Fitzgerald‘s career is winding down but he remains the Cardinals best option. The receivers beneath him on the depth chart are extremely green. Brice Butler was scarcely used in Oakland and Dallas, while J.J. Nelson is solely a deep threat playing for a second contract. Arizona’s hopes of consistent production outside of Fitzgerald may rest with Chad Williams or rookie Christian Kirk making the leap.

Tight End

The Best: San Francisco 49ers

The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks

George Kittle, along with Evan Engram of the New York Giants, thrived despite the notion that tight ends often struggle in their rookie year.

The fifth-round pick battled injuries in his first year. Yet he still proved a dynamic weapon in the passing game, making 43 catches for 515 yards and two touchdowns. Kittle is an imposing red zone target who can also stretch the field. Should he stay healthy, Kittle could develop into one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He and Garrett Celek, who had four touchdowns and 336 yards on just 21 receptions in 2017, should prove prolific in Shanahan’s offense in 2018.

The Rams figure to have similar hopes for Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee. Everett is athletically similar to Kittle but caught just 50 percent of his targets as a rookie. The 2017 second-rounder was impressive with the ball when he did catch it, though. His average of 6.8 yards after the catch ranked sixth among tight ends, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac.

If he can improve as a receiver, Everett should have a strong second year. The Rams frequently use two tight ends and Higbee’s blocking should keep him on the field. Yet it will likely be Everett who dominates the snaps should he progress as expected.

The Cardinals do not have the same wealth of options. Jermaine Gresham is 30 and coming off an Achilles injury, meaning Arizona may have to rely more on Ricky Seals-Jones.

Seals-Jones’ transition from college receiver to tight end saw him score three touchdowns on 12 catches. Further targets will come his way in his second year.

Jimmy Graham‘s departure led the Seahawks to bring in Ed Dickson. Dickson is known more for his blocking and 175 of 437 yards gained in 2017 came in one five-catch game. Beyond him, the Seahawks have rookie Will Dissly, also regarded as more of a blocker, and Nick Vannett, who goes into his second year off a quiet maiden campaign.

Offensive Line

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

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

The 2017 additions of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan turned the Rams line into an elite group. Their arrivals, paired with the improvements made by guard Rodger Saffold and the impressive play of right tackle Rob Havenstein, paved the way for Goff and Gurley to have career years.

With Jamon Brown missing the first two games through suspension, the Rams will not be able to have the same continuity up front they enjoyed throughout last season. However, they do have two athletically gifted rookie reserves in Brian O’Neill and Joseph Noteboom.

Continuity up front would allow the 49ers to flourish given the talent they have. Joe Staley remains a premier left tackle and rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey has excelled in the preseason. Center Weston Richburg should slot easily into Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, but the biggest question is at right guard. Should Joshua Garnett win the job, the 49ers would have four first-round picks on the offensive line.

That is a luxury Arizona also enjoys. However, the Cardinals have already seen their depth in the trenches hit by a season-ending injury to center A.Q. Shipley. Rookie Mason Cole will have to fill the void.

Left guard Mike Iupati and left tackle D.J. Humphries are each coming off injuries, while Arizona’s hopes on the right side rest on free-agent signings, Justin Pugh and Andre Smith. The latter struggled in pass protection in 2017 with the Cincinnati Bengals. However, Pugh ranked 11th in snaps per blown block among right tackles in 2017, per Football Outsiders.

Seattle’s O-Line issues have been exhaustively documented and it takes a leap of faith to believe things will improve. Duane Brown‘s mid-season addition did not result in much of an impact and center Justin Britt remains their best lineman.

Left guard Ethan Pocic ranked in the bottom 10 at his position in snaps per blown block, per Football Outsiders, as did Germain Ifedi, who is struggling to hold on to his right tackle spot. Guard D.J. Fluker‘s arrival should improve the run blocking but his pass protection issues are likely to show up a division filled with interior disruptors.

Be sure to take a look at LWOPF’s breakdown of the defenses in the NFC West.

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