Hot take of the season #1: The 49ers will be awful. Oh to be a 49ers fan in the last five years. A team that was a perennial powerhouse just three years ago is now the laughing stock of the league. So much has gone wrong for San Francisco in the past couple of years: the front office alienated itself from Jim Harbaugh, and replaced him with Jim Tomsula, lost two of the best linebackers in the league to retirement and another to a brutal ACL injury, and had it’s All Pro quarterback forget how to play football. The only reason people have been talking about the 49ers this offseason has been due to Collin Kaepernick refusing to stand up during the national anthem. That Kaepernick is currently taking a back to seat to Blaine Gabbert, even though new Head Coach Chip Kelly runs an offensive system that perfectly suits Kap, is telling.
The only redeeming things about the 9ers is that they are getting NaVarro Bowman back, having signed the All Pro backer to a four year, $44 million extension. The 49ers spent their first round pick on DeForrest Buckner in an attempt to add some extra punch to their front seven. Buckner was the most impressive defensive lineman in the draft and should immediately help out a defensive that was 30th against the pass in DVOA. Still, this team is a far cry away from the Patrick Willis led units that ranked among the best in football just a couple of years ago.
Even if things go perfectly for San Fran: Chip Kelly resuscitates an offense that ranked 29th in passing and 22nd in rushing according to DVOA, and the defense makes a dramatic improvement, they still play in the toughest division in football. Their schedule is starts off with a murderer's row of opponents: Rams, @Panthers, @Seahawks, Cowboys, Cardinals. There’s been a fair amount of chatter that suggests Gabbert got the starting gig at QB because Kelly did not want to get Kaepernick killed in the first five weeks. There’s a very decent chance that this squad will start the year off 0-5, and even if you pencil in wins at the Bill in week six and against the Buccaneers in week seven, you still have a team that going into its bye week at 2-7. At what point does this team decide to go into full tank mode in hopes of landing a cornerstone young player, and try to rework an offense that is devoid of talent at nearly every position?
As a long time fan I am fully resigned to this team being a multi year rebuilding project, and I’m willing to treat the next two or three seasons as showcases for young players like Buckner and hope that Kelly can make the offense at least watchable for the couple of times that they will be on national tv.
This is all you need to know about the L.A. Rams - Jeff Fisher is still the head coach and they gave up a kings ransom to draft Jared Goff, who is currently their third string QB. We all know what to expect out of Jeff Fisher coached teams, even a team with arguably the best running back and best defensive line in the league. Their range of wins is anywhere from seven and eight. Book it.
Hot take of the season #2: The Seahawks will be back in the Super Bowl. When I look for teams that could be in the Super Bowl the two things that stand out most is QB and defense. Teams can win with just one of the two, just look at Denver, but having both is like having a golden ticket to being a contender.
By almost any measure Russell Wilson had the best season of his career in 2015. His 85.5 QB rating was the sixth highest in the NFL. He threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career, while having a Int % of 1.7, which was fifth best among NFL starters. Wilson had an incredible year without much help from his O-Line which ranked dead last in the league according to Pro Football Focus. If there’s any worry about the Seahawks this year it will be whether or not they can keep their quarterback standing upright and keep him healthy throughout the season.
There is little to not like about Seattle’s defense, which once again looks like it will be among the very best in the league. This defense used to be all about their secondary, but the emergence of defensive end Michael Bennet and linebacker KJ Wright has rounded out this stellar unit which finished the year third in both rushing and passing DVOA. This defense offers their opponents no quarter, and makes plays that are every bit as exciting as what we see out of most teams offenses. It’s hard not to look at the combination of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and not feel serious pangs of jealousy as a 49ers fan.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way to a Seahawks title this season resides in their own division. The Arizona Cardinals are the most talented team in the NFL when it comes to position players. Everywhere you look there is a game changer. The Cards desperately missed Tyrann Mathieu in the playoffs last year, the honey badger was a Pro Bowler last year, creating havoc on defense with his 89 tackles, five picks and seventeen passes defended. The five foot - nine inch safety, suffered an ACL tear at the end of last season but is expected to play in their week one matchup with the Patriots. Mathieu is only 24 and when you pair him with Patrick Peterson (26) you have the makings of a championship defense for years to come.
The Cardinals offense relies on a mix of ten plus year veterans and newly emerging superstars to get the job done. Carson Palmer may be 36, but he just had the best season of his career and is surrounded by the kind of talent that a QB dreams about. David Johnson emerged as a pass catching, fast cutting wunderkind in his rookie campaign. Larry Fitzgerald continued to add to his hall of fame resume in 15’ by catching 109 balls and racking up 1,215 yards in his first season as a primarily slot receiver. To see a guy who is 33 years old be able to dominate in the way that Fitz did last season was awe inspiring.
At the head of this talent rich bunch is Bruce Arians, who after years of being everyone’s least known favorite coach, is now the league’s biggest coaching star. Arians knows how to get the most out of an offense, and with so many weapons at his disposal, it’s hard to see the Cardinals taking a step back this year.
That these two teams have to play each other twice in every season seems unfair when you look at the rest of the league. If you could somehow get the 2012 49ers into a time machine to replace it's current iteration you would have the nastiest division in the history of the game. I'd put the odds of the NFC Super Bowl representative coming out of this division at 50/50. It's a fun devision to watch, even if my beloved 49ers are currently residing in the basement.