The NFL season is two months away and it is time to start going division by division. For future betting, the payouts for picking division-winners are not as high as picking the Super Bowl champ. But there’s also a much greater chance of cashing a ticket, and the Patriots can only win one of the eight quartets, so it can be a lot more interesting too.
Everyone always starts these division-by-division breakdowns with the AFC East, going top down from the traditional standings orientation. Call me a Blake Griffin-style pioneer, but I’m going bottom-up. Let’s find the best value in the NFC West for the 2017 season.
What had been one of the toughest divisions in the NFL over several seasons fell apart last year. The Seahawks earned the division crown by three games, but put together a not-so-impressive 10-5-1 record. They allowed 292 points, second best in the NFC behind the Giants. Seattle dispatched the Lions at home in the Wild Card Round, and lost to Atlanta in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Much of the Seahawks off-season attention was focused on the run game. They signed Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi, and drafted Ethan Pocic to play up front. Eddie Lacy was signed to team with Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise in the backfield. The Seahawks should be fine on defense, but they need young tackles George Fant and Germain Ifedi to improve in the offensive trenches. They are a reasonable but not unbeatable favorite.
In 2015 the Cardinals were among the best teams in the NFL before Carson Palmer was injured. Last year Arizona started 1-3, and never recovered, finishing 7-8-1. That said, they tied the Seahawks in Week 3, and beat Seattle in Week 16. For the year, the Cardinals outscored their opponents by 56 points, just six fewer than the Seahawks.
Their off-season was focused on defense, which is reasonable since they scored 64 points more than any other team in the division. They are hoping for improvement from Rodney Gunter and Robert Nkemdiche up front. Veterans Antoine Bethea and Karlos Dansby were brought in via free agency. At the draft, the Cards chose Linebacker Haason Reddick in the first round and safety Budda Baker in the second.
The biggest question mark will be how they weather the loss of Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson. It is hard to say they’ve drastically improved, but last year could be an aberration.
Coming off a four win season, the Rams relocated to Los Angeles and changed coaches. Jeff Fisher, who did all the due diligence in acquiring the first pick in the draft and using it on quarterback Jared Goff, was shown the door. Goff struggled in his debut season, but played in less than half the games last year. This season, he has a good opportunity to improve as a sophomore.
New coach Sean McVay is just 31 years old but oversaw a potent Washington offense in the past few seasons. Adding Connor Barwin on the defensive line, and John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth on the offensive front may help, but even with the additions, LA will not be a divisional contender this season.
It wasn’t that long ago that Jim Harbaugh had the 49ers in the NFC Title Game for three years running. This year Kyle Shanahan is the third San Francisco coach in as many years. Jim Tomsula went 5-11 two years ago, and Chip Kelly managed just two victories last year. New GM John Lynch was crafty in the draft, getting Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster in the first round. He has prioritized defense this off season, with Earl Mitchell and Malcolm Smith added to the fold. With Kelly’s fast tempo system gone, the defense will improve by simply not being on the field as much too. That said, Brian Hoyer is slated to start the year under center, and the 49ers will not be a factor in the NFC West once again.
This is a two-horse race. To lay 1/3 with Seattle suggests the Seahawks win the division three-quarters of the time. The bottom line is Arizona was better than Seattle two years ago, played well head-to-head last year, and has a slightly easier schedule this season. It feels more like 60/40, and at that point, getting better to 3/1 that the Cardinals get it done provides enough value for a small play.
Photo Credit: Kyle Engman (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]
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