The summer is beginning to draw to a close, and soon, temperatures and leaves will begin to fall. The NFL preseason is currently underway, and true NFL football is nearly here. Welcome to M-FANS 2018 Season Preview, where our staff of talented University of Michigan student writers will share their insight into the NFL’s 32 teams and top players as we get ready for the kickoff of the regular season. Today, we take a look at the NFC West. Enjoy!

By Zane Harding, Matt Orecchio, Ethan Grayeb, and Matthew Jo

Los Angeles Rams

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 11-5 (1st in NFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
Head Coach – Sean McVay
Defensive Coordinator – Wade Phillips
Run Game Coordinator – Aaron Kromer
Pass Game Coordinator – Shane Waldron

Projected Offensive Starters
(2017 Approximate Value stats provided from Pro Football Reference)
QB – Jared Goff (15 AV)
RB – Todd Gurley (19 AV)
WR1 – Brandin Cooks (13 AV)
WR2 – Robert Woods (8 AV)
WR3 – Cooper Kupp (9 AV)
TE – Gerald Everett (3 AV)
LT – Andrew Whitworth (14 AV)
LG – Roger Saffold (12 AV)
C – John Sullivan (8 AV)
RG – Jamon Brown (8 AV)
RT – Rob Havenstein (8 AV)

Projected Defensive Starters
LDE – Michael Brockers (7 AV)
RDE – Aaron Donald (15 AV)
NT – Ndamukong Suh (7 AV; 12 AV in 2016)
WLB – Matt Longacre (2 AV)
ILB – Mark Barron (7 AV)
OLB – Samson Ebukam (2 AV)
ILB – Cory Littleton (3 AV)
CB1 – Marcus Peters (5 AV; 13 AV in 2016)
CB2 – Aqib Talib (9 AV; 14 AV in 2016)
CB3 – Nickell Robey-Coleman (3 AV)
SS – John Johnson (5 AV)
FS – Lamarcus Joyner (6 AV)

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Johnny Hekker (3 AV)
K – Greg Zuerlein (6 AV)
KR/PR – Pharoh Cooper (2 AV)
LS – Jake McQuaide (3 AV)

Season Preview

The 2017 Los Angeles Rams came out of nowhere. After the 2016 Rams finished 4-12 in Jeff Fisher’s final season as head coach, the team dumped Fisher and hired brilliant 32-year-old head coach Sean McVay, who was an assistant under Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan before becoming the Redskins offensive coordinator for three years prior to his head coaching debut. Under McVay, the Rams won seven more games in 2017 than they had the previous year, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley suddenly became top-tier players (especially Gurley, who regained the love of fantasy players everywhere), and the power dynamic of the NFC West was turned on its head. For his service, McVay was named the NFL’s 2017 Coach of the Year.

After a 26-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons during wild-card weekend this past January, the Rams decided to turn heads once again, as they had one of the busiest offseasons in NFL history. The team’s primary weakness in 2017 was its defense. That said, the team played solid enough defense, as their 339.5 yards per game allowed was 14th-best in the league and their 20.6 points per game allowed was 12th-best in the league. This wasn’t good enough for Los Angeles general manager Les Snead, however, as the Rams acquired three former all-pros: cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Sure, the team didn’t draft until the third round, but they acquired three of the best defensive players of this generation. No big deal.

So, how will this new-look Rams team perform in 2018?

Let’s start with the offense. The Rams were the top scoring offense in 2017, as their 29.9 points per game were the best in the NFL. In just sixteen games, the Rams scored 478 points, twenty more points than the Super Bowl runner-up Patriots and twenty-one more points than the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Sure, they weren’t the best offense in the league by pure yardage—their 5784 yards (361.5 per game) was only good for 10th-best in the league—but they did score the most. In 2018, the offense could possibly see some regression, as it will be difficult for Greg “Legatron” Zuerlein to replicate his monster kicking season, but the pieces are here for this offense to rack up more yards than it did last year. Jared Goff is overrated by his 15 AV, as he was actually only football’s 15th-best quarterback last year if going by Pro Football Focus grades, but Todd Gurley is, at the worst, a top-five NFL running back. Further, the team has three very capable wide receivers in Brandin Cooks (who was also acquired this offseason), Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods. The main concern is the offensive line. This offensive line graded out as the sixth-best in football in 2017, but with Andrew Whitworth turning 37 this year and John Sullivan turning 33, there is some cause for concern. Whitworth posted an incredible 14 AV last year but showed his age against the Falcons, so it’s worth pondering how much he has left in the tank.

Even if the offense isn’t the league’s best in 2018, the defense could be. Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers combine to make the premier defensive line of the NFL. With the addition of Suh, Aaron Donald will have a chance to wreak havoc as a defensive end, which should make for a truly lethal duo. The secondary features Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who should continue to post strong numbers in 2018 (though it’s hard to expect both to post double-digit AVs after neither did in 2017). For all its stars, though, the Rams defense does have its shortcomings. The linebacker group is weak; in fact, Mark Barron is the only good linebacker this team has. Additionally, the team has no edge rushers. That might not matter with Donald and Suh, but it’s a reason for concern. Regardless, this defense should be very impressive in 2018.

The Rams are a very, very scary team to watch in 2018. The team has a top-five offense and a top-five defense on paper. With that said, the defensive stars the team acquired this offseason are coming off down seasons in 2017, the offensive line could show its age and become a weakness, and the linebackers and edge rushers are nowhere to be seen. All in all, expect big things from the Rams in 2018. They are not perfect, but they can beat any NFL team on any given week at any given stadium.

Players to Watch

Todd Gurley

Todd Gurley was brilliant in 2017. 2093 all-purpose yards, 19 all-purpose touchdowns, and a league-best 19 AV. All in all, Gurley was the best player in football in 2017. Can he replicate this performance in 2018? Probably not, especially with the aging offensive line due for regression. Regardless, Gurley is an absolute monster and will be the primary threat of this Rams offense again this season.

Andrew Whitworth

Andrew Whitworth has been an elite left tackle for four straight years, posting double-digit AVs in every season since 2014. But then, he posted a 36.8 overall grade in the Rams playoff loss. In fact, it was his lowest-graded game ever. Will he be that bad this year? No. Could this be a sign of incoming regression paired with this being his age-37 season? Yes.

Marcus Peters

Marcus Peters has only been in the league for three years, yet he has already made two pro bowls. That said, last year was not anything special. Sure, he amassed another five interceptions and three forced fumbles, but his AV dropped from 11 in 2015 and 13 in 2016 to 5. For context, Kayvon Webster, the Rams’ starting LCB in 2017, posted an AV of 4 last year while playing three fewer games. The fact that Peters posted a 5 AV season at age 24 and his team suddenly traded him away is a reason for concern.

 

Seattle Seahawks

By Matt Orecchio

2017 Record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Pete Carroll
OC – Brian Schottenheimer
DC – Ken Norton Jr.

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Russell Wilson (16 AV)
RB – Chris Carson (2 AV)
RB – Rashaad Penny (AV N/A; Rookie)
FB – Tre Madden (1 AV)
WR1 – Doug Baldwin (8 AV)
WR2 – Tyler Lockett (6 AV)
WR3 – Jaron Brown (3 AV)
TE – Nick Vannett (1 AV)
LT – Duane Brown (6 AV)
LG – Ethan Pocic (5 AV)
C – Justin Britt (7 AV)
RG – DJ Fluker (2 AV; 7 AV in 2016)
RT – Germain Ifedi (7 AV)

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Branden Jackson (1 AV)
RE – Frank Clark (6 AV)
DT1 – Jarran Reed (7 AV)
DT2 – Tom Johnson (8 AV)
SLB – Barkevious Mingo (4 AV)
MLB – Bobby Wagner (16 AV)
WLB – KJ Wright (8 AV)
CB1 – Shaquill Griffin (4 AV)
CB2 – Byron Maxwell (3 AV)
CB3 – Justin Coleman (3 AV)
FS – Earl Thomas (10 AV)
SS – Bradley McDougald (3 AV)

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Michael Dickson (AV N/A; Rookie)
K – Sebastian Janikowski (AV N/A; 4 AV in 20160
PR – Tyler Lockett (6 AV)
KR – Tyler Lockett (6 AV)
LS – Tyler Ott (1 AV)

Other Notable Players
WR – Brandon Marshall (New Signing; 1 AV; 5 AV in 2016)
WLB – Shaquem Griffin (2018 5th-round draft pick; AV N/A)
RB/WR – JD McKissic (Signed in 2016; 3 AV)

Season Preview

Remember the Seahawks’ good old days? It seems like it was just a few years ago that they beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl, and then repeated their Super Bowl run before losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49. It seems like it was just a few years ago that they had one of the best defenses of all-time, led by the Legion of Boom secondary. That’s because that all was just a few years ago, when we all thought the Seahawks were the next dynasty. Although they missed the playoffs last year, we do have to give them credit for still finishing above .500. But this team is a shell of its former self. They haven’t had a running game since Marshawn Lynch, they haven’t had a relevant receiver besides Doug Baldwin in years, and gone are the days of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Michael Bennett joining forces with the only two studs left on this defense (Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas).

The only relevant moves the Seahawks have made this offseason have come through the draft. They did sign Brandon Marshall, but unless he has a major comeback season, it doesn’t seem like he’ll perform like vintage B-Marsh. The main picks to watch for are first-rounder Rashaad Penny and fifth-rounder Shaquem Griffin. Their first-round selection of Penny indicated that they thought they were getting a featured back, but Penny has been unimpressive (and hurt) throughout the preseason and currently sits behind Chris Carson on the depth chart. The one-armed (literally) linebacker Griffin was the greatest success story of the draft. He had his arm amputated as a child, but was still a stud at UCF and won a Defensive Player of the Year award in his conference. He sits behind longtime starter KJ Wright on the depth chart.

Throughout all their ups and downs, one thing has remained the same: Russell Wilson. It’s crazy that Seattle’s franchise QB still hasn’t won an MVP award, but he definitely deserves one. Despite the Seahawks’ unimpressive offensive output last year, Wilson still found a way to lead the NFL in touchdowns. Even crazier: Wilson accounted for 37 of the Seahawks’ 38 offensive touchdowns last year. Seattle was 12th in total offensive yards, 23rd in rush yards per game, and 14th in pass yards per game last season. Not bad, but nothing special either. And with the roster they’re currently working with, these numbers seem to be their ceiling. Wilson can’t really do much more to lead this team, and they’re still working with an average-at-best receiving group, subpar runningbacks, and one of the worst offensive lines in the league. If this team wants to find its way back into the playoffs in 2018, offensive players (besides Russ) need to step up.

With Richard Sherman signing with the 49ers this offseason and Kam Chancellor retiring, Earl Thomas is the only remaining member of the Legion of Boom (does Byron Maxwell count?). Michael Bennett went to the Eagles, and you have to figure that the Seahawks’ defense takes a step backward in 2018. The Seahawks have had great defensive numbers for years, and last year they were still able to finish 10th in points allowed and 6th in passing yards per game allowed. With two of the best defensive backs of this generation gone, there’s almost no way the Seahawks are able to keep this up. And it isn’t just the fact that the Seahawks lost a bunch of key pieces, but more importantly they haven’t been able to find valid replacements.

If Russell Wilson were to suffer an injury (knock on wood), this team is honestly no better than 4-12. They are simply missing the pieces they need to be contenders in a crowded NFC. The only way that I can see them making a playoff push is if 2 or 3 players on both sides of the ball step up big and if Russ keeps up his MVP-worthy play. But that’s a lot to ask, and it seems like the team has way more question marks than potential answers. 

Players to Watch

Chris Carson

Last year, Chris Carson was supposed to be the Seahawks’ next big thing at running back. Unfortunately, he only played in four games and lost the rest of the season to injury. This preseason, he’s performed well, and seems to have the edge over first-round pick Rashaad Penny. I don’t think the Seahawks will give up on Penny that quickly, but if Carson continues to impress, he could very well be the team’s every-down back. But behind their putrid offensive line, it won’t be easy.

Brandon Marshall

There’s no debating that B-Marsh is one of the best receivers of this generation. He’s been a stud since 2007, and had great seasons on the Broncos, Dolphins, Bears, and Jets. In 2016, he showed signs of regression, catching for only 788 yards and 3 TDs with the Jets. Many expected a bounce-back season with the Giants in 2017, but due to injury he only played five games and only caught 18 balls all year. Marshall still hasn’t made the playoffs once in his career, and it doesn’t seem like Seattle will give him a chance to showcase his skills in January. Currently sitting fourth on the depth chart, we’ll see if Marshall can bounce back in year 13.

Shaquill Griffin

With Richard Sherman headed south to San Francisco, Shaquill Griffin is the new CB1 in Seattle. Sherman’s shoes will be nearly impossible for Griffin to fill, but I think the talented young cornerback is up for the challenge. He was ranked the 58th-best cornerback by Pro Football Focus last year, and put up 59 tackles, 15 pass deflections, and one interception. Not bad. I think Griffin will take a step forward in his sophomore season and is in a great position to step up on their decimated defense.

 

Arizona Cardinals

By Ethan Grayeb

2017 Record: 8-8 (NFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Steve Wilks
OC – Mike McCoy
DC – Al Holcomb

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Sam Bradford (1 AV; 11 AV in 2016)
RB – David Johnson (1 AV; 15 AV in 2016)
RB – Chase Edmonds (AV N/A; Rookie)
FB – Derrick Coleman (0 AV)
WR1 – Larry Fitzgerald (8 AV)
WR2 – Brice Butler (3 AV)
WR3 – Chad Williams (0 AV)
TE – Ricky Seals-Jones (1 AV)
LT – DJ Humphries (2 AV; 7 AV in 2016)
LG – Mike Iupati (0 AV; 7 AV in 2016)
C – Mason Cole (AV N/A; Rookie)
RG – Justin Pugh (3 AV)
RT – Andre Smith (4 AV)

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Benson Mayowa (2 AV)
RE – Chandler Jones (15 AV)
DT1 – Corey Peters (5 AV)
DT2 – Robert Nkemdiche (2 AV)
WLB – Deone Bucannon (6 AV)
MLB – Josh Bynes (2 AV)
SLB – Haason Reddick (3 AV)
CB1 – Patrick Peterson (9 AV)
CB2 – Jamar Taylor (5 AV)
CB3 – Brandon Williams (1 AV)
NB – Bene Benwikere (1 AV)
FS – Antoine Bethea (4 AV)
SS – Budda Baker (9 AV)

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Andy Lee (3 AV)
K – Phil Dawson (2 AV)
PR – Christian Kirk (AV N/A; Rookie)
KR – TJ Logan (AV N/A; Rookie)
LS – Aaron Brewer (0 AV)

Other Notable Players
WR – JJ Nelson (Back-up WR/KR; 4 AV)
QB – Josh Rosen (10th overall pick in NFL Draft; AV N/A)

Season Preview

The Cardinals finished a disappointing 2017 season at eight and eight. This was their final season under head coach Bruce Arians, and they failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season. Steve Wilks reassured Cardinal nation and team owner Bill Bidwill that they made the right decision hiring him during his introductory press conference. This may be true, but a lot will have to happen for the Cardinals to make the playoffs this season.

Wilks and his staff will be relying on a whole new set of quarterbacks to lead this team as Carson Palmer retired in the offseason. Free agent additions Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon and rookie first round draft pick Josh Rosen will be competing for the starting job. The wide receiving corps is depleted, and star running back David Johnson is returning from a season in which he missed all but one game. Defensively, the Cardinals will be replacing six starters from last season, including safety Tyrann Mathieu.

Cardinal fans will be dreaming about a season where Bradford starts all sixteen regular-season games and a David Johnson who can rush for twelve-hundred plus yards and twenty touchdowns again. This may seem unlikely as Johnson has dealt with a plethora of injuries, and Bradford has not started all sixteen games since 2012. The Cardinals were twenty-fourth in third-down percentage last season, twenty-fifth in scoring and thirtieth in touchdowns scored in the red zone, so offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will sure have his hands full trying to improve this offensive unit. The offense will be using thirty-four-year-old Larry Fitzgerald a lot, who has had an impressive career but has a ton of miles on his body. Rookie wide receiver Christian Kirk out of Texas A&M will be able to learn from an all-time great, while also getting considerable playing time and helping the offense.

Arizona had the sixth ranked defense in the NFL last year, but losing six starters will put some fear in the fans. The defense has changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3 now under Coach Wilks, which should help Robert Nkemdiche make a bigger impact on the game. Overall, expect a transition year from this talented Arizona team. They are close, but not all the way there yet.

Players to Watch

Chandler Jones   

He is the defending sack champion, and I do not think he will be slowing down in 2018. Look for Wilks to blitz a lot, which means opposing quarterbacks should be scared of seeing Jones coming at them. He can be used as a defensive end or linebacker, so he is a versatile star on this Arizona defense.

Budda Baker

Look for Budda Baker to make a big impact on this refreshed defense after the departure of Tyrann Mathieu; he was a pro bowler in 2017 and is still improving. Baker will be used everywhere on the defensive side of the ball for Wilks, but will make most of his plays around the line of scrimmage.

Christian Kirk

The rookie out of Texas A&M will be learning under Fitzgerald while also avoiding the focus of opponents’ game plans. This will work in his favor as he should expect to see a lot of man coverage. I expect Kirk to break out this year and find his way into the starting lineup by mid-season.

 

San Francisco 49ers

By Matthew Jo

2017 Record: 6-10 (4th in NFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC/OC – Kyle Shanahan
DC – Robert Saleh

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Jimmy Garoppolo (5 AV)
RB – Jerick McKinnon (9 AV)
FB – Kyle Juszczyk (3 AV)
WR1 – Marquise Goodwin (8 AV)
WR2 – Pierre Garcon (4 AV)
WR3 – Trent Taylor (3 AV)
TE – George Kittle (4 AV)
LT – Joe Staley (9 AV)
LG – Laken Tomlinson (7 AV)
C – Weston Richburg (1 AV)
RG – Mike Person (2 AV)
RT – Mike McGlinchey (AV N/A; Rookie)

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Solomon Thomas (6 AV)
RE – Arik Armstead (2 AV)
DT1 – DeForest Buckner (7 AV)
DT2 – Earl Mitchell (7 AV)
SLB – Mark Nzeocha (1 AV)
MLB – Brock Coyle (5 AV)
WLB – Malcolm Smith (AV N/A; 7 AV in 2016)
CB1 – Richard Sherman (4 AV; 10 AV in 2016)
CB2 – Ahkello Witherspoon (3 AV)
CB3 – K’Waun Williams (2 AV)
FS – Adrian Colbert (2 AV)
SS – Jaquiski Tartt (3 AV)

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Bradley Pinion (1 AV)
K – Robbie Gould (6 AV)
PR – Trent Taylor (3 AV)
KR – Victor Bolden Jr. (0 AV)
LS – Kyle Nelson (1 AV)

Other Notable Players
MLB – Reuben Foster (SUSP 2G; 5 AV)
CB – Jimmie Ward (2 AV)

Season Preview

The 49ers struck gold last season in Kyle Shanahan and bonafide quarterback Jimmy G.  Starting the year 1-10, the Niners finished the season without a loss after Garoppolo took over.  There was a clear impact made by having a promising franchise quarterback – the offense jumped from 21st in yardage to 4th in the NFL (gaining 410 yards/game) and they also jumped from 28th in scoring to 5th (putting up 28.8 points/game).  With all of this momentum, the 49ers only have themselves in their way in order to obtain a playoff berth for the first time in five years. The roster will also mostly look the same as it did at the end of last season as the only departures were Carlos Hyde, Aaron Lynch, and Eric Reid (for now).  Free agency actually brought in more talent in big names such as Richard Sherman and Jerick McKinnon; John Lynch and Shanahan have crafted quite a team with what scraps they had to begin with.

Draft time also saw San Francisco take Notre Dame star offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey in the first round and Washington playmaking pass-catcher Dante Pettis in the second.  Both will be a huge part of this team’s success immediately as McGlinchey is the clear-cut starting right tackle across from Joe Staley, and Pettis is the starting punt returner (Pettis had an NCAA record 9 punt return TDs in college!).

This offense looks sneakily but scarily good.  Shanahan has a reputation for being an offensive guru, and now that he’s had a full offseason with his star quarterback, the aerial attack should be firing on all cylinders (they were already 3rd in the NFL in passing yards/game in the last 5 games of the season).  In conjunction, the offensive line seems to be strong going into the season as they only let up 8 sacks in the final 5 games of 2017, and in their last preseason game against the Colts, four of them were graded at a 74.8 or higher. With Garoppolo’s ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately, a solid offensive line, and Shanahan’s genius schemes for their skilled receivers such as Goodwin and Garcon, there should be no problem going up against the vaunted defenses of the NFC West.  Add in the signing of PFF’s 9th-best running back from last year, Jerick McKinnon, and this offense is primed to score both through the air and on the ground.

Defensively, this is Reuben Foster’s team.  Saleh has a history of linebacking success on his teams, and Foster was no different as he landed at #59 on PFF’s top 101 players list with a grade of 90.7.  His teammates will have to step up this season as Smith missed all of last year with a torn pec, and the defensive front was rated 28th in the league at stopping the run.  One problem that might persist is the misplacement of the linemen. Drafting interior pass rushers in the first round for the past three years has not panned out exactly how they thought it would as two of those players have been moved outside.  Last year’s first round selection Solomon Thomas was noticeably more effective on the interior rather than the edge as he generated pressure every 4.3 pass-rushes compared to every 14.5. Arik Armstead has also had a similar issue in his young career, but Buckner, who has stayed at his original position, has been the most effective as he graded at an 82.2 according to PFF last season.  The secondary that ranked 20th in passing defense a year ago will be led by the former all-pro Richard Sherman and up-and-comer Ahkello Witherspoon. Sherman even on a down year almost hit an 80 on PFF and Witherspoon was graded as an 81.1; safety play will be a question though with the loss (?) of Eric Reid and health concerns of Jimmie Ward. Overall, this will be a team that will be carried by the offense – don’t expect too much from the defensive side of the ball.

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