NFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Bryan Altman and Rahul Lal

You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into. 

So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready for another NFL season. 

Last season was a departure from the inevitability that has been the Seahawks running away with the NFC West as the Cardinals took control of the division early in the year and didn’t look back. This year though, the Seahawks aren’t the only team looking to take down the Cards, but all of these teams have important questions to answer heading into 2016.

mathieu1 NFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona Cardinals

Camp Begins: July 25 (Rookies) July 28 (Veterans) – Glendale, AZ

Can They Stay Healthy?

Heading into the 2016 season, the Cardinals appear to be as close to the perfect team on paper as any in the NFL. Their offense is a healthy mix of steady veterans, young standouts and what should be a stout offensive line. Their defense is set to be much improved from the unit that got torched by Cam Newton and the Panthers in the NFC Championship game with Tyrann Mathieu returning healthy and Chandler Jones joining the defense as their leading edge rusher. Not to mention the fact that head coach Bruce Arians can actually walk on water.

In all seriousness though, he seems to have more than a firm grasp over his eager-to-please players and has been a tremendous success in his first three seasons in Arizona. Even The Rock wants to play for this guy (whatever that means)! So all in all, the Cardinals are set for another great year in 2016… pending the dreaded injury bug.

Many of the linchpins of the Cardinals’ 2016 identity as a Super Bowl contender have suffered from a serious injury at some point in their recent history, or have a history of injuries.

Key players like Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu are vital components to the team’s success that are injury risks. If they can stay healthy and the rest of the Cardinals’ key cogs can, too, a return trip to the NFC Championship and beyond is well within their grasp.

Can Chandler Jones Transform The Cardinals Pass Rush?

If there’s one area that the Cardinals struggled in in 2015 it was taking opposing quarterbacks to the ground. The Cardinals were 20th in the NFL in sacks with only 36 and 35-year-old Dwight Freeney was their leader in that department with 8.0.

To address this, they traded guard Jonathan Cooper and a second round pick over to the Patriots for stud pass rusher Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks last season with New England.

On the surface, this deal was a no-brainer for the Cardinals, especially when you factor in the signing of pro bowler Evan Mathis to replace Cooper.

There are some questions about Chandler’s motor and inconsistent play from time to time, along with the incident that went down before the Patriots’ AFC divisional round game against the Chiefs in this past year’s playoffs, but at 26, Jones is likely entering into his prime and can be a force off the edge for the Cards.

Can The Offensive Line Keep Palmer Upright?

On paper, as mentioned above, the Cardinals’ offensive line should be a more than capable unit. However, there are some concerns here when you look closely.

They’re a veteran group – the third oldest unit in the league right now – with the average starters’ ages coming in at 29.3 years old and there will be at least three new faces on the starting line protecting their 36-year-old quarterback, Carson Palmer.

As a veteran group, they have plenty of experience in the NFL and should be able to jell quicker than a younger group of linemen, which is the good news.

The bad news, of course, is with age comes injury and declining play, both of which could hamper the Cardinals’ deep passing attack and their ability to run the football if the line isn’t as effective as last year’s unit.

Last year the Cardinals allowed just 27 sacks on Carson Palmer, good for fourth in the league and they had the eighth best rushing attack in terms of yards gained. This new line will be tasked with emulating or improving upon those numbers if the Cardinals are going to have another deep postseason run in 2016.

la rams1 NFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Los Angeles Rams

Camp Begins: July 27 (Rookies) July 29 (Veterans) – Irvine, CA

What’s Jared Goff Got? 

All eyeballs will be on Jared Goff as the 2016 NFL season gets underway, which of course is a pretty natural byproduct of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and the first No. 1 pick of a new era of LA football, subsequently becoming the face of the newest NFL city. No pressure, kid.

Regardless of the vacuous rhetoric coming out of the head honchos in Los Angeles, Jared Goff is going to start this season at quarterback, as he well should.

The Rams were 7-9 last season and that was largely thanks to their defense. The Rams’ offense – even with Todd Gurley’s productive rookie year – was dead last in yards per game with just 297.6 and finished 29th in the league in points per game, averaging just 17.5 per contest and you can blame the passing game for almost all of their struggles.

Here’s how the Rams’ passing offense stacked up last year:

Yards Per Game – 175.3 (Last) 

Quarterback Rating – 74.1 (Last)

Completion Percentage – 57.7 (Second to Last)

Passing Touchdowns – 11 (Last)

Passing 1st Downs – 126 – (Last – By a long shot, next closest team was the Vikings with 153)

Yikes.

If you’re looking for a positive in that dumpster fire of a breakdown it’s this: The Rams actually allowed the fewest sacks of any team in the NFL last year. Part of that is due to them having fewer passing attempts than all but two teams, but that’s still a bright spot, especially if you’re a rookie quarterback looking desperately for one.

Either way, Goff has the size and build to thrive in the NFL and has above average arm strength and can make all of the throws at the NFL level. He had some issues in college with accuracy from time to time and in the NFL that could become accentuated with just the slightest error, but luckily he’ll have a solid receiving core and a great running back alongside him to help bring him along in Gurley.

Goff and football back in Los Angeles is an exciting prospect and seeing what Goff’s got should be fun as well.

Can The Offensive Line Keep Goff Upright?

One of the usual caveats that come with being the No. 1 overall pick in any sport is that you get to languish away on the worst team in the league the year before. In the NFL, that usually means if you’re a quarterback that gets drafted, you’re going to take a beating.

For Goff, luckily, the Rams aren’t that thanks to their trading up with the Titans to snag the No. 1 pick.

Plus, as mentioned above, the Rams’ offensive line actually allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL last year. So that’s a good thing.

But last year’s Rams o-line was still ranked 28th in the league. They’re still a very young unit overall and left guard and veteran presence on the line, Roger Saffold, has had issues staying healthy and only played in five games last year.

That and the Rams’ No. 2 overall pick in 2014, left tackle and blindside protector, Greg Robinson, is one year away from being tagged with the dreaded ‘B’ word (bust, in case you were wondering).

If the left side of the Rams line is unreliable or injured again in 2016, Goff could see the ground more often than he should and it could hamper his ability to grow. The Rams’ offensive line needs a big turnaround year in order to get Goff into a groove and give Los Angeles a chance at watching a competitive team on Sundays.

Can The Defense Steal Some Wins In 2016? 

It takes an entire team to raise a rookie quarterback in the NFL and the role of the Rams defense this year is going to be helping Jared Goff through rough stretches by remaining stout and keeping the team in games as they did last year.

Last year the Rams’ offense (as we’ve mentioned, so sorry to beleaguer the point so thoroughly) was borderline inept sans Todd Gurley and the defense had to drag them kicking and screaming to seven victories for the most part.

The defensive line, lead by Aaron Donald (2015 Pro Bowl), Michael Brockers, William Hayes and Robert Quinn, played a major role in keeping the Rams in tight games all year and holding opponents to an average of 20.6 points per game, good for 13th in the league.

This year the defensive line should be dominant again, but there are some questions at linebacker and in the secondary.

The Rams’ secondary was among the most improved in football last year but the loss of Janoris Jenkins to the Giants in free agency undoubtedly makes them weaker there. They also lost starting safety Rodney McCleod, who started alongside Mark Barron and made a formidable duo until Barron stepped into more of a linebacker role when starting weakside linebacker Alec Ogletree went down with an injury early in the year.

The Rams also parted ways with long-time middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who’s play might have declined but his leadership was tough to question on defense.

All that adds up to some uncertainty surrounding this group even if the defensive line is poised to be a Top 5 unit once again.

chip kelly1 NFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers

Camp Begins: July 30 – Santa Clara, CA

Who’s The QB?

The 49ers are in, just about, one of the strangest situations this storied franchise has faced. They have Colin Kaepernick, who is only a couple of seasons removed from being considered one of the best, young players in football but he was benched midway through last season for former first round pick, Blaine Gabbert.

While Gabbert didn’t necessarily solidify his spot as the team’s starting quarterback, he is considered the incumbent starter in San Francisco. While the Niners took Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel in the 2016 NFL Draft, he’s nowhere near being ready to start.

Don’t forget, Chip Kelly is now making decisions in the Bay Area and while his style of play calling works best with a mobile, dual-threat quarterback like Kaepernick, that doesn’t mean it will happen. Whoever comes in to start at quarterback will join a very thin roster and it begs the question of whether any of the options listed here are even ideal at all.

Who Steps Up At WR?

The Niners have typically had a solid receiving core but at this point look to have one of the worst and most unreliable. While Torrey Smith has been an above average option throughout his career, he also has struggled to maintain consistency and hasn’t really had to deal with the expectations of being a number one receiver. It doesn’t look like unsigned free agent Anquan Boldin will be back this season either.

Going beyond this, the only other realistic options are Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and Jerome Simpson. Those three veterans combined for a whopping 48 receptions last season and averaged, together, 1.4 receptions per game. The Niners may need to look elsewhere, whether it be rookie Aaron Burbridge or explore other options, but this won’t be a coaching decision, this will come down to finding out which player can separate himself best from the rest of the pack.

What Overall Effect Will Chip Kelly Have?

The Chip Kelly experiment didn’t work out as planned in Philadelphia and now he gets a do-over. While the Niners have long been known to be one of the toughest competitors in the NFC West, it remains questionable, at best, that the Niners will stay relevant at all this season. Kelly came to a team in Philadelphia and molded it to the team he was imagining in his head while cutting ties with many beloved players and bringing in many more new players into the mix.

It remains to be seen if Kelly will want to start wheelin’ and dealin’ like he did in Philly but he started the new era by taking former Oregon Duck DeForest Buckner. While he can develop into a special talent along with Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward and under the tutelage of NaVorro Bowman, the roster is painfully thin and won’t be the same intimidating force the Niners usually are. It looks like Chip Kelly will really need to motivate his players, develop the young guys and ensure he doesn’t butt heads with GM Trent Baalke.

seahawks1 NFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks

Camp Begins: July 29 – Renton, WA

Is Thomas Rawls Ready?

The Seahawks are saying goodbye to everyone’s favorite player and personality in Marshawn Lynch. Thomas Rawls had an eye-opening season filling in for the injured Lynch accumulating 830 yards on only 147 attempts. This included separate performances of 101 yards, 104 yards, 169 yards and 209 yards. In the six games Rawls carried the ball more than 15 times and the Seahawks went 5-1 with their only loss coming by a field goal in overtime at the hands of the Bengals.

Rawls has shown great talent but at only 5’9” it isn’t common to see many running backs find sustained success. Teams will also be better prepared for Rawls this season so he will have to rely on the offensive line to open up gaps for him. As loud as the 12th man is in Seattle, they’ll let Rawls know if they think he’s ready very soon.

How Good Can This Secondary Be?

Brandon Browner returned to Seattle to team up with Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Jeremy Lane but it remains to be seen if this secondary can continue on as the “Legion Of Boom.” Browner only had one interception last season and will turn 32 by the time season starts.

With the NFL being so pass heavy, secondary play is as important as it’s ever been. The Seahawks will need to prove that they are capable of guarding the best receivers and containing the top quarterbacks to return to the playoffs as they’re expected to.

Consistency, How Much Of It Will We See This Season?

Master motivator, Pete Carroll, saw his team start the season 0-2, then 2-4. While four of those six losses were by a touchdown or less, they also came as a result of the Seahawks struggling early in games. Seattle finished the season on a tear, winning six of their final seven and locking up the wild card spot, but that’s a position that this team is too talented to be put in. In many of those games, the Seahawks dug their way out of the dirt to win while others saw pure domination.

These Seahawks have the potential to be a powerhouse in the NFL this season but could potentially struggle as well if they dig themselves into too deep of a hole. The Seahawks only won their wild card game because of a horrendously botched field goal by Minnesota and were down 31-0 at halftime against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. In order to really achieve their potential this season, the Seahawks must show more consistency.

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