At the close of the 2016 season the Seattle Seahawks were atop the division and the only surprise came from the floundering of the Arizona Cardinals at 7-8-1, who had entered the season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The least surprising story of 2016 was the futility of the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams fired their coaches and are starting over with Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, respectively. Both are leading an organization for the first time, with McVay being the youngest head coach in NFL history at 31 years old.
With the Cardinals having already reported to camp, let’s take a sneak peak at the division and their best training camp battles.
* Order is in predicted standings for 2017
1.) Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks once again boasted a top-five defense and Russell Wilson continued to lead the organization, no thanks to the offensive line. Wilson was sacked 41 times (tied for second worst in the league) and played most of the season hobbled. The line was in shambles all season, except for Justin Britt who manned the pivot admirably. The team drafted Ethan Pocic in the second round of the draft and has the versatility and talent to start at either guard or center. Eddie Lacey will look to revive his career in the Pacific Northwest, similar to Marshawn Lynch back in 2010.
On defense, cornerback will be under close scrutiny. All-Pro Richard Sherman was on the trading block, after an overly pugnacious 2016 season. DeShawn Shead, started opposite Sherman, but tore his ACL in the postseason. His return is up in the air. Safety Earl Thomas also suffered an injury, playing in only 11 games. It was the first time he failed to complete a full season in his career. Depth is a major issue for the secondary, which lead to the team spending four draft picks on this unit.
Best Camp Battle: Luke Jockel vs George Fant
Left tackle will be under close watch as Jockel and Fant battle it out to be top dog. Fant started 10 games last season, but as an undrafted former basketball player, his game still has a long way to go. Jockel, like Lacey, is looking to revive his career after four injury plagued seasons in Jacksonville after being selected as a Top 10 pick.
2.) Arizona Cardinals
The Cards are, seemingly, giving it one last swing with Carson Palmer at the helm. Injuries took out most of the team in 2016, but one bright spot was the emergence of David Johnson. He took as much off of Palmer’s shoulders as possible, rushing for over 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, while adding 80 receptions (second best on the team) and another 800-plus yards. Similarly to Palmer, this could be the last go for club legend Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, has transitioned well to playing the possession role more as he gets older. He posted another 100-plus catch season.
Arizona posted the second best overall defense in the league last year, however the team lost five starters during free agency. One position they addressed via free agency was inside linebacker, where the team brought back Karlos Dansby for his third stint with the team. Even at his age, he is still an asset. The front line is a strength, but lost another club legend in Calais Campbell. That leaves last year’s first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche. He under-performed last season and has a lot to prove in 2017.
Best Camp Battle: Brandon Williams vs Justin Bethel
Marcus Cooper led the team in interceptions and is now in Chicago, leaving Williams and Bethel to start opposite Patrick Peterson. Both started three games last year and neither left an impression. Williams, a third-round choice last year, has the inside track, but is still new to the position. Bethel, a special teams stud, needs to be more consistent to keep the spot after starting his career at safety.
3.) San Francisco 49ers
A lot is new in San Francisco. The team is now being led by Shanahan and fellow first-timer in GM John Lynch. Lynch, proved legitimate after wisely maneuvering the draft. He and Shanahan were smart in building their roster. They brought in familiar faces from Shanahan’s previous coaching stops, signing Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, and Aldrick Robinson. The team finished the season with the second worst offense, there is only room for improvement. Jeremy Zuttah, was acquired via trade, fresh off his first Pro Bowl appearance. He adds another top talent to work with left tackle Joe Staley.
While the team finished second to last in total offense, they finished dead last in total defense. Again, there is only room to improve. Coordinator Robert Saleh is also a first timer. He’ll be switching the team from their long time 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 and got two tremendous building blocks in Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster in Round One of the draft. Defensive leader NaVorro Bowman will also be back. The linebacker missed 12 games in 2016 thanks to a torn Achilles. Third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon could compete for a starting spot at cornerback.
Best Camp Battle: Jimmie Ward vs Jaquiski Tartt
Safety will be a fun position battle. Ward, has been used at cornerback and safety over his three years in the league, while Tartt has been used as a supersub at both safety positions. Safety is Ward’s natural position, but if the corner position fails to solidify and Tartt beats out Ward, corner could be Ward’s new home.
4.) Los Angeles Rams
In five years under Jeff Fisher, the Rams only produced 31 wins. It got so bad, that star running back Todd Gurley said their offense “looked like a middle school offense out there” after a 42-14 thrashing by the Atlanta Falcons last season. Fisher is out and McVay is in. He has a lot of work to do in bringing life to the Rams’ offense. Early reports are that the players are buzzing over McVay’s new scheme, but a lot still needs to be upgraded. The addition of proven and consistent veterans like Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth, and John Sullivan should pay off. Jared Goff, will be looked at to take the next step.
McVay was very smart to hire Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. He’s still one of the best in the league and will transition the team to his preferred 3-4 scheme. It will be interesting to see if it pays off as all-world talent Aaron Donald has excelled as a three technique over his first three years. He’ll move to a five technique. Similarly, Robert Quinn’s transition from end to linebacker will be worth monitoring. He has not aged well. Trumaine Johnson is the No. 1 corner and excels in zone schemes, however Phillips’ defense requires more press-man coverage.
Best Camp Battle: Tyler Higbee vs Gerald Everett
Tight end is an important part in McVay’s offense. Higbee started seven games last year as a rookie, but only turned in 11 receptions for 85 yards and a single touchdown. Everett, is a rookie who plays like a supersized wide receiver. If he can translate that ability, the payoffs could be big.