On Thursday, we detailed the positional rankings for each defense in the AFC West. Now we switch conferences to the NFC, and the offenses dwelling in the West, where all four units have undergone struggles in recent seasons. This series consists of 16 parts, as we rank the position groups of each division in the NFL on both sides of the ball. Keep in mind that each position group is ranked based on current ability, with a lean toward “near future” projections thrown in.
1. Seattle Seahawks – Russell Wilson
2. Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer
3. San Francisco 49ers – Brian Hoyer
4. Los Angeles Rams – Jared Goff
Analysis: I don’t know that many would argue with this assessment of the West’s quarterbacks, as Wilson is the only one who would finish in the top-ten signal callers league wide. Palmer’s decline really began to show last season, as he threw 14 interceptions and completed just 61 percent of his passes, one of the lower marks of his career. At 37 years old, he might have one more bounce-back season in him, but Palmer’s ability to stay healthy has been as questionable as his play.
Hoyer is stop-gap starter who is reliable, but not the answer for any franchise long term. Quietly, the 31- year-old played very well last season in five starts for the Chicago Bears, but his career sample size tells us that the 49ers will ultimately be looking for a new starter.
Goff is coming off a dreadful rookie season in which his offensive line was among the worst in the league, his receivers were inept and his running game non-existent. On top of that, his defensive-minded head coach was fired during the season, and his offensive coordinator is now the Buffalo Bills’ tight ends coach after lasting just two seasons in his first stint ever as an offensive coordinator. Make no mistake, Goff walked into an absolute train wreck of a situation last season, and did nothing to elevate the play of those around him. ut anyone writing him off after one season simply has another agenda.
I was admittedly not high on Goff (or any quarterback in the 2016 class) coming out of college, but he deserves at least a full season in a semi-stable environment, with an offensive minded staff in place around him, before we condemn his career to “bust” status.
1. Arizona – David Johnson, Andre Ellington, T.J. Logan,
2. Los Angeles – Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown, Lance Dunbar
3. San Francisco – Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower, Joe Williams
4. Seattle – Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise
Analysis: Before last season, many would have placed Gurley atop this list, but Johnson used the 2016 campaign to establish himself as one of the premier all-around offensive weapons in the game. Meanwhile, Gurley, the former offensive rookie of the year, struggled mightily behind a horrendous offensive line. I still believe in Gurley’s overall talent, but the Rams’ passing attack will have to threaten defenses down the field in order to keep opponents from stacking the box against them.
Hyde has had a lot of trouble staying healthy and consistently effective behind a 49ers offensive line that has seen better days, but he is a solid starter when he is out there. Unfortunately, two of his three seasons have ended under 500 yards rushing, and Hyde has yet to play a full season in the NFL.
Lacy has had similar issues, along with weight concerns that have threatened to derail his career entirely. Rawls and Prosise have both spent the majority of their careers on injured reserve. However, they have flashed impressive talent when healthy. Both of these groups will have the opportunity to move up in 2017, but they desperately need their personnel to stay on the field to avoid the issues that have plagued their rushing attacks of late.
1. Arizona – Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, J.J. Nelson, Jaron Brown, Chad Williams
2. Seattle – Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, Amara Darboh
3. Los Angeles – Robert Woods, Tavon Austin, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds, Pharoh Cooper
4. San Francisco – Pierre Garcon, Bruce Ellington, Marquise Goodwin, Jeremy Kerley, Trent Taylor
Analysis: It’s very tight at the top between Seattle and Arizona, as Baldwin is still grossly underrated, and Lockett has the skills for a breakout season in his third campaign. But Fitzgerald is still a top-12 wideout in the NFL, and Brown’s sickle cell concerns, which limited him to just 39 catches last season, should be alleviated this year. Combine those two with Nelson’s ability to stretch the field with game-breaking speed, and the Cardinals receiver group is still fairly potent.
The Rams and 49ers have two of the league’s poorer pass-catching groups, but Woods was a solid addition for L.A., and Kupp can be a decent slot receiver who will probably have to start right away. I like Reynolds’ potential to make that fourth-round selection look very good. But Austin will again be asked to be a true No. 1 receiver, despite repeatedly showing that he doesn’t have the skill set for such a role. The former eighth-overall pick will still have big-play potential in Sean McVay’s offense however, so expect a slight bump in production compared to the last four disappointing seasons.
Outside of Garcon still being a solid starter, the 49ers have a wide receiver group that would be competing for the fourth or fifth spot on most rosters, at best. Garcon is a good possession guy, but good luck finding a consistently dominant threat with big-play potential amidst that group. Goodwin has some vertical ability, and Taylor’s polished route-running will likely give him the starting slot receiver spot right away. But make no mistake, this group is in contention for the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL.
Seattle – Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson
San Francisco – Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, George Kittle
Los Angeles – Gerald Everett, Tyler Higbee
Arizona – Jermaine Gresham, Troy Niklas
Analysis: The “Graham and Wilson have no chemistry” narrative took a nose dive last season when Graham caught 65 balls for 923 yards and six scores, averaging a career high 14.2 yards per catch. Seattle doesn’t force-feed Graham the ball like New Orleans did, but he returned to monster status last season with some absolutely fantastic performances, nonetheless. Willson also deserves mention as a solid backup who is better than the vast majority of tight ends throughout the rest of the division.
After Seattle, the NFC West is a dumpster fire for tight ends in terms of production or big-play impact. McDonald being an average starter is enough to elevate San Francisco to second place, while the Rams young, unproven duo at least gives them hope for the future. Everett has miles to go as a blocker and route-runner, but he does possess a nice athletic toolset to develop into a mismatch player over time.
I’d rather have all that uncertainty over the known below-average play of Gresham, who is somehow still starting despite seven seasons of failing to live up to expectations. Arizona has done little to upgrade its tight end position in recent years, and what it has done, drafting Niklas in the second round three years ago, hasn’t panned out at all.
Arizona – D.J. Humphries, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Dorian Johnson, Jared Veldheer
San Francisco – Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Jeremy Zuttah, Joshua Garnett, Trenton Brown
Los Angeles – Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Rob Havenstein, Jamon Brown
Seattle – George Fant, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, Luke Joeckel, Germain Ifedi, Ethan Pocic
Analysis: This is definitely not the go-to division for offensive line play, but I do believe that Arizona’s unit will be much improved this season. Humphries seemed a lot more comfortable on the left side late in the season, and Johnson was a terrific steal in the early fourth round. Getting Veldheer back from injury further strengthens a group that already has one of the best run-blocking guards in the game in Iupati.
The 49ers’ line isn’t good, but in this division that’s a very relative term. Staley and Brown are a solid tackle tandem, especially with the latter’s play on the rise last season, and Garnett is a guy I was high on pre-draft. The Stanford product struggled as a rookie, but in a more functional setting, and with a full offseason as an expected starter under his belt, I expect the tireless worker to make major strides in 2017.
Whitworth is still one of the best left tackles in the NFL, but it almost looks odd to see him next to such a hapless bunch in Los Angeles. Sullivan is 31 with back problems, making it unlikely he returns to the high level he once played at, and Havenstein and Brown will both be moving positions after miserable 2016 campaigns. The left side will be solid, and the group will be better than last year, but don’t expect major improvements in Los Angeles right away.
Seattle’s offensive line would probably get my vote or worst in the league, with a mess of players who’ve either failed at their current positions or are trying new ones after failing at their previous spots. Fant and Ifedi were two of the worst offensive linemen in the NFL last season, and Joeckel has now been a bust at tackle and guard during his four-year career. Britt is a solid player who might look better if he was anchoring a better group, but perhaps Pocic, a rookie, can step into the lineup at guard or tackle and represent at least a small improvement from last season.